La Rioja Rules

01
July
2012

Posted by Bernie Reeves

Posted in Football / UEFA News

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Euro 2012 Finals

Bernie Reeves will be providing his analysis of Euro 2012 throughout the tournament.  Listen to Bernie on Talkin Fussball, available now on Sport Eagle, iTunes or Podbean.

Bernie wraps up his coverage with a look back at the Finals!

Euro 2012 final: Spain 4-0 Italy

Spain made history in Kiev on Sunday night by becoming the first team ever to win three consecutive major tournaments. Vicente Del Bosque’s side saved their best performance of the campaign for the game that mattered most, as two goals in each half from David Silva, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata sealed a comfortable win over a plucky Italy side.

The world and European Champions had suffered criticism throughout the tournament that they had become something of a ‘boring’ side to watch. The 2-0 victory over France in the quarter-finals, in particular, had drawn the wrath of local fans and opposition media, who claimed that Spain’s football wasn’t entertaining enough. But against Italy the doubters were well and truly silenced. The Italians will rue injuries to Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta, which left them with only ten men for the final half an hour. But while the scoreline may have flattered Spain, this was a game that was only going to have one winner once Silva’s strike had got the ball rolling.

La Furia Rioja started the game full of purpose, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Silva and Cesc Fabregas combining to excellent effect and pulling Italy across the park. And when they didn’t have possession, Spain did precisely what Germany’s midfield had failed to do in the face of the Italian diamond formation: press each pass and suffocate the supply line from Andrea Pirlo. It was a tactic that worked extremely well for them, allowing Spain’s passing maestros to dictate the flow of the game.

Time and again in the opening quarter of an hour, a threaded diagonal pass from midfield had the Italy defence back-pedalling and in trouble, with Andrea Barzagli and Pirlo producing crucial interceptions. But after Xavi had fired over the bar, Spain took the lead through a trademark piece of passing and moving. Iniesta picked up possession and threaded a beautifully weighted pass into the run of Fabregas, who turned on the after-burners to beat Chiellini and cross for Silva to head emphatically into the tip corner. It was a goal that just oozed class, with a majestic pass from Don Andres and a superb piece of play from Fabregas, expertly illustrating how to play the ‘false nine’ position.

Italy tried to regroup but a wall of red shirts greeted strikers Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano whenever they touched the ball, with Sergio Ramos and Pique looking solid. There were one or two nervous moments for Spain when Casillas fumbled at a Federico Balzaretti cross and then a Pirlo corner, but the defending champions continued to monopolise possession and soon doubled their lead.

Left-back Alba, a real find for Spain in that problem position and someone who looks certain to occupy a place in the national team for many years to come, collected another sensational pass from Xavi and finished past Gigi Buffon with the type of composure that belied the fact it was his first international goal.

Italy had led Germany 2-0 at half-time in the semi-final but were on the opposite end of that scoreline here, and it was going to take a mammoth effort for them to rescue the evening. Coach Claudio Cesare Prandelli played his first hand by replacing the subdued Cassano with Antonio di Natale, scorer of the only goal Spain had conceded in the group stage three weeks ago. And the initial signs were promising for the Azzuri. Di Natale flashed a header just off target shortly after the restart and then had an effort pushed out from close range by the sprawling Casillas, as Spain’s defence momentarily lost concentration.

If there was to be any chance of them hauling themselves back into the game, Italy needed to score the next goal. But their hopes were dealt a cruel blow just before the hour-mark as bad luck struck again. Thiago Motta had just come on for Riccardo Montolivo but managed just three minutes of action before pulling up with a hamstring complaint. With Di Natale on and Chiellini already having been replaced by Balzaretti due to an ankle injury, Italy were left to play the final half an hour with ten men and two-goal deficit.

They fought bravely but the game was effectively over for Prandelli’s side when Motta was withdrawn. Already high on confidence, Spain tortured their opponents with an exhibition of possession football, adding two more goals late on for good measure. First, Xavi released Torres, on as a substitute for Fabregas, and the Chelsea forward showed great calmness to slide a deft finish into the far corner, also writing himself into the history books as the only player to score in two consecutive European Championship finals.

And with the clock winding to a close, there was still time for Mata to come on for his first appearance of the tournament and side-foot into an empty net after Torres had unselfishly squared the ball back to him. The final whistle followed soon afterwards, cueing manic celebrations among the Spain camp, who promptly invaded the pitch in ecstasy.

A 4-0 defeat may have been harsh on Italy, who played well for their part, even with a man less. But they were simply blown away by a team of outrageously talented footballers. The match could not have been more different to the 1-1 draw the two sides played out on matchday one in the groups stages, or the four games that Spain had played since then. Despite controlling those games, Spain had looked somewhat pedestrian and didn’t seem to be showing the flair and creativity that had signalled their arrival on the footballing stage four years ago.

But their performance here was one that echoed the masterful football they produced in the 3-0 win over Russia in the semi-finals in 2008, widely recognised as the first point of reference for ‘tiki-taka’ football and the beginning of their subsequent dominance.

The question has now been asked, and will continue to be asked, of whether or not we have now witnessed the greatest side to ever grace the game of football. Sides that vie for the title of ‘greatest’ come up with performances when it matters, and on Sunday night we saw that plainly and simply. It will be interesting to see what changes occur in Spanish football in the near future, particularly regarding the position of Del Bosque.

With the spine of the team – Casillas, Ramos, Iniesta and even Xavi – still relatively young, there may be yet more trophies to come. Brazil 2014 cannot arrive quickly enough for this record-breaking team. But Spain and their fans can deservedly celebrate their Euro 2012 win. It was a triumph probably more impressive than four years ago, and an achievement not likely to be equalled in football for a very long time, if ever.

Bernie Reeves is a freelance football writer based in Munich and a regular panelist on the Talking Fussball podcast.  Follow him on Twitter @reevsinho9.  Listen to the gang preview Germany-Italy in latest edition available now.

 

Germany Fall Short Again

Semi-final 2 – Germany 1-2 Italy

Italy displayed all their maturity and tournament nous to defeat a youthful Germany side and book their place in Sunday’s showpiece final against world and defending European champions Spain. Despite a bright start, defensive errors left Germany 2-0 down at the break thanks to two clinical finishes by the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. Mesut Özil pulled a goal back in stoppage time but it was a match, and tournament, too far for Joachim Löw’s young guns.

Going into this tournament, Germany manager Joachim Löw had enjoyed a reputation as a manager that didn’t like to change his team too often, at least in terms of his first eleven personnel. In the Greece game he surprised everyone by changing his entire front three players, but against Italy he threw us yet another curveball, this time more unexpected than before.

Toni Kroos, a player that had played just 22 minutes of football in the entire tournament was given a starting berth ahead of Thomas Müller, presumably to negate the threat of Italy’s midfield gaining the upper hand in the game, especially l’architetto Andre Pirlo, the scourge of England in the quarter-final. Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez also reclaimed their starting positions in place of André Schürrle and Miroslav Klose respectively.

In the opening moments of the game, it was clear to see that Kroos and Özil were regulating the duty of pressing the Italian midfield, and Pirlo in particular, with both of them being allowed to drift and rotate when Germany were in possession. And when they did get win the ball, it was they that created the best opportunities. Germany’s forte under Joachim Löw has been their speed and movement in attack and they got off to an encouraging start in the game, as Mats Hummels’ header beat Gigi Buffon but not the craftily placed Pirlo on the goalline. Jerome Boateng then steamed forward and forced a nervy save from Buffon with a vicious low cross, before Kroos tested the veteran keeper with a blast from 25 yards.

Italy were on the back foot temporarily. But Germany’s Achilles’ heel, a point accepted almost universally by observers, is their defence and they chose the wrong time to make some appalling sloppy errors. Italy hadn’t tested Manuel Neuer much, save for a Riccardo Montolivo shot from 20 yards. But they stole the lead when Antonio Cassano turned Hummels and delivered a pinpoint cross for Balotelli to outmuscle Holger Badstuber and plant a firm header home. It was Hummels’ first real mistake of the tournament, and one that he will not relish seeing again, but Badstuber was also hopelessly passive in his marking of Balotelli.

Germany were shocked at conceding the first goal, the first time they had done so in a competitive game since losing a World Cup semi-final to Spain in 2010. But before they could properly regroup, Italy had doubled their lead. This time the defending was less sloppy than abject. A poor Kroos corner – which would become a feature of the evening – was headed clear to Riccardo Montolivo. The half-German, half-Italian midfielder then looked up and punted a hopeful ball into the path of the onrushing Balotelli.

Philipp Lahm was wrong-footed, Podolski ball-watched and Neuer froze as Italy’s no.10 took the ball down leisurely and smashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Italy, who were held at arms’ length by a very ordinary England side in the quarter-finals, were daring to send the highly fancied Germans to an embarrassing exit.

The second half saw the withdrawal of Podolski and Gomez, both of whom had been anonymous, for Marco Reus and Klose. In theory these were two good changes for Löw to make, bringing on two dynamic and energetic forwards to shake up the rigid Italian rearguard.  The problem was that Germany were 2-0 down at the time. Reus at least made something of an impact, combining well to free Lahm for a shot at goal, but the German captain lacked composure and his shot sailed over the bar. Klose, for his part, was reduced to feeding off scraps from below-par crosses lumped in by Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, all of which came to nothing.

There was industry to speak of from Özil, Reus and Müller when he was introduced. But the Italian defence was simply too strong and too organised: Leandro Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were immense in the centre, with the relative unknown Federico Balzaretti more than a worthy accompaniment, playing in an unfamiliar right-back role. And when they were beaten, the Azzuri could call on the giant frame of Buffon to rescue them; he did extremely well to tip a Reus free-kick over via the help of the crossbar.

Gaps inevitably began to appear in the German backline and Italy wasted a number of chances to kill the game off. Claudio Marchisio had two good opportunities to add a third, but sliced a shot wide and then dragged another off-target after Badstuber, who was clearly struggling, had stumbled in the box. Antonio di Natale, on as a substitute for the cramp-stricken Balotelli, then raced through after another horrendously optimistic attempt by Badstuber to play offside, but the 34-year-old could only hit the side netting.

Germany did halve the deficit in injury time; Balzaretti was adjudged to have handled Sami Khedira’s flick-on in the area and Özil tucked home the spot-kick. But it was too little too late for a Germany side that had well and truly come up short when it mattered.

Löw must shoulder some of the blame for his risky team selection that backfired completely. Starting with Kroos, whom simply wasn’t prepared for such responsibility at this stage of the tournament, was a gamble that didn’t pay off, and he turned in a very poor display; Gomez and Podolski utterly ghosted the game, depriving Germany of two focal points in attack; Schweinsteiger, upon whom so much responsibility had rested in the build-up the tournament, gave another desperately poor performance, misplacing passes and delivering aimless balls for Klose to fight for; and the defence, which had been exposed as suspect in recent friendly games and recognised as the weak link of the team, had a day where they got almost nothing right. As well as Italy played, it was a massively disappointing, and surprising, display from such a talented team.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Germany’s team. But consolation may be taken in the fact that this was the youngest squad at the Euros, with an average age of just 24.52 years. Despite their disappointment – Löw admitted the players had cried in the dressing room afterwards – this was probably a tournament too early for that squad. Brazil 2014, or even France 2016, may be more realistic targets for them.

Italy will face Spain in Sundays final with renewed belief. Not only were they able to beat a vibrant, youthful and powerful Germany side – comfortably – they also gave Spain the hardest test they have come up against in these championships when they drew 1-1 in the opening game of Group C two weeks ago. With their very own midfield maestro to rival Xavi & Co. in Pirlo, Italy will feel that nothing is beyond them. Two Premier League strikers may very well hold the key in that game: Manchester City’s Balotelli and Chelsea’s Fernando Torres for Spain.

Spain to Defend

Semi-final 1 – Portugal 0-0 Spain (Spain win 4-2 on penalties)

Portugal and Spain played out a tense if rather dreary game in Donetsk last night, the second 0-0 draw in succession at Euro 2012. Spain were marginally the better side in normal and extra time, but it took spot-kicks for them to seal their place in the final. Cesc Fabregas was the hero who sunk the winning penalty after Bruno Alves had struck the crossbar for Portugal.

This was an Iberian derby with a twist. There is no love lost between the two countries – Span had won 16 times in this fixture before, with Portugal victors on just seven occasions. And their geographical proximity made it something of an international derby. But there was a sub-plot to the game as well, which gave it even more of an intriguing feel. The build-up to this game had been all about one man – Cristiano Ronaldo.

If Portugal were to get to another major final and win an international tournament, their superstar captain was surely the man to take them there. He had scored three times in the championship so far and hit the woodwork another four, so it was clear for the Spanish which player they had to keep the closest eye on. Handily, many of them were club teammates of Ronaldo’s at Real Madrid, or opponents at Barcelona and knew which buttons of his to push. How Spain would deal with would likely prove key in which team would progress to Sunday’s final.

There are different schools of thought in how to set up a team to play Spain. Some teams have sat back and defended, happy to concede possession and try to hit them on the counter-attack or via a set-piece, such as England did in a friendly at Wembley last November. Italy, on the other hand, matched Spain by pressing the midfielders and defenders high up the pitch and not letting them settle into any passing rhythm when the teams met in the group stage of these Championships.

Portugal do have pace and flair in abundance with Nani and Ronaldo, but coach Paulo bento chose to follow Italy’s example of high-energy pressing and, for the first half at least, it worked extremely well. The Spanish midfielders played more long balls than they had done in probably their last five games, as they were denied time and space on the ball by the tenacious Portuguese, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho the two outstanding performers.

Spain did inevitably create the odd chance, though, and Alvaro Arbeloa should have done better than to side-foot an effort over the bar when well-placed. Andres Iniesta also might have tested Rui Patricio in the Portugal goal, but his curling shot sailed over. For Portugal, the best chance of the half fell to Ronaldo. After a quick interception from Moutinho, he picked up the ball on the edge of the box, turned inside Sergio Ramos and fired in a shot, but the ball struck the side netting.

It had been a very good performance from the Portuguese and a rather ordinary one from Spain. Coach Del Bosque’s choice to play Alvaro Negredo up front had backfired somewhat as the Sevilla man had barely been involved. Arbeloa had looked vulnerable against Ronaldo at times but had done well with the help of David Silva and Ramos to keep the winger’s marauding runs to a minimum.

Sadly, the second period proved to be one of the most turgid halves of football we have seen at the tournament. Negredo was replaced by Fabregas, with Spain now opting for no striker n the pitch at all. But with everything being played in front of them, centre-backs Pepe and Alves looked only too pleased to have no out-and-out striker to worry about (although that might also have been the case even when Negredo was on, so minimal was his influence). Portugal’s pressing game then began to slow as fatigue caught up with them. They sat back more in their own half, content to soak up pressure and hit the Spanish on the break.

It was a job they did well, and, as the clock approached 90 minutes, they had a brilliant opportunity to strike the decisive blow. A corner was headed clear and suddenly the Spanish defence was outnumbered. Meireles powered over the half-way line and slipped in Ronaldo, but his shot was wild and off-target. In fairness to him, the pass had been a poor one.

As well as their superb ball carriers in the middle of the park, the Spanish are gifted on the flanks as well and they stepped up the pace in extra time as Portuguese legs began to look weary. First Jordi Alba sprinted down the left and crossed for Iniesta but his weak shot was clawed away by Patricio. And then in the second period, Jesus Navas forced another great save from the keeper. Portugal were now clearly playing for penalties.

When the shootout arrived, there was drama from the off. Xabi Alonso had scored a penalty in the same ground, in the same goal, against France in the last round, but his kick was brilliantly saved by Patricio. Moutinho then stepped up to press home the advantage but Casillas sprang to his right to pull off another great save and keep the scores level. Iniesta and Pepe then both scored, before Gerard Pique made it 2-1.

In a first for the European Championships, Alves then strode to the penalty area, but was followed by Nani, who promptly sent the defender back to the halfway line, presumably because he had forgotten which penalty he was supposed to take. Nani coolly converted his penalty, but after Ramos had made it 3-2, Alves was now up. One could only imagine the nerves he was feeling after having walked up, then back and now up again. He put the ball on the spot and went for power but his penalty slammed against the crossbar.

Fabregas was then left with the task of finishing the Portuguese off. Patricio guessed the right was but the former Arsenal man’s penalty was expertly placed, finding the net via the inside of the post.

Spain’s opponents in the final will be Italy or Germany, who play this evening in Warsaw. Italy have already given the champions a stern test in these Championships, but are by no means favourites to get past a vibrant Germany side. Joachim Low’s team have been the most dynamic and exciting side to watch so far and are still yet to reach their maximum. With the movement they possess in attack, the Italian defenders will have their work cut out.


The Italian Job

Quarter-final 4 – England 0-0 Italy (Italy win 4-2 on penalties)

In the first match of these Championships to be decided by a penalty shootout, it was Italy that managed to hold their nerve and defeat an immensely stubborn England team in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium. Neither of these two sides boasted particularly good records in spot-kicks in major tournaments, but the Italians overcame Riccardo Montolivo’s early miss to book a mouth-watering tie with Germany in next Thursday’s semi-final. England – as if a record could sound any more broken – have now been beaten in five of their last seven penalty shootouts at major tournaments, and eight in total.

But in a sense footballing justice had been done. Even the most ardent England supporters would not begrudge that the better team advanced to the last four. Italy had 36 shots to England’s nine, enjoyed a miserly 68% possession and completed 744 passes to England’s 269.  Of those 36 shots, 20 were on target. And Mario Balotelli had nine efforts on goal just by himself in this game. England had just 19 shots in total in their entire Euro 2012 campaign. Only Greece, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland had had fewer efforts on goal.

England keeper Joe Hart was almost picking the ball out of his net before he’d even touched it, as Daniele de Rossi’s curling left-foot strike evaded his dive and struck the inside of the post after just three minutes. But at the other end, England threatened themselves as James Milner’s cross was deflected into the path of full-black Glen Johnson, whose weak shot was well clawed out by Gigi Buffon.

Balotelli, around whom so much of the pre-match build-up had centred on account of his familiarity with the English team and press, was particularly wasteful in the first period. He shot straight at Hart when well-placed and saw a close-range effort cleared via a combination of John Terry and Joleon Lescott that left him kicking the post in frustration. He also spurned a glorious chance when through one-on-one with Hart. After Andrea Pirlo’s excellent through ball had found him, he hesitated and allowed Terry to get in a recovering challenge.

Italy had been on the ascendancy towards the latter stages of the first half, but as soon as Pedro Proenca blew his whistle for the beginning of the second half, they seized control of the game and rarely let go. The imperious Pirlo dominated proceedings, belying his 33 years of age to spray passes all over the place and give the English midfield the runaround. Frustratingly for England – and this had been their Achilles heel all tournament – they seemed incapable of stringing more than a few passes together.

Wayne Rooney still looked off the pace after missing the first two group games through suspension and Ashley Young turned in another disappointing display on the left wing. Neither were Steven Gerrard or Scott Parker much better in holding on to the ball, meaning the England defence was working overtime. Terry made a number of crucial blocks in the second period, while Hart saved well from Montolivo and Balotelli. Johnson, one of the team’s better performers in this campaign, also put in a desperate challenge to prevent substitute Antonio Nocerino’s shot from finding the corner.

England had been under the cosh for long spells in all three of their group games, but this took that to a new level, partly because of the finesse which Pirlo moved the ball around and partly through England’s desperately poor ball retention. The gulf in class was between the two teams was evident. But there remained this perhaps naïve but certainly valid belief that, despite all the close shaves, England were going to emerge from this game as winners.

Just as Chelsea had done many times in their Champions league triumph this season, Roy Hodgson’s team were a whisker away from conceding. When the game entered extra time, another substitute, this time Alessandro Diamanti, first hit the post with a speculative cross-cum-shot, before Nocerino had a header rightly ruled out for offside. It had become clear, even in normal time, that England were playing for penalties. Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott were introduced in place of Welbeck and Milner to inject some pace and energy into the side, but neither of them managed to cure the ills peppering England’s barely existent passing game.

In the shootout first blood went to England. Balotelli and Gerrard both scored, before Montolivo missed, leaving Rooney to score and put England in the extremely unfamiliar position of leading 2-1. Pirlo then showed that class exudes from every sinew in his body by coolly chipping in to equalise, before Young smashed his effort onto the crossbar to leave the scores level at 2-2 after three penalties each.

Nocerino rolled his penalty home comfortably before another Ashley, this time Cole, failed to do what he had done in the Champions League final and sent a weak effort into the grateful arms of Buffon. At 3-2, Diamanti, once of West Ham United, was then coolness personified to send Hart the wrong way and put Italy into the semi-finals.

It was a familiar tale of woe and despair for England. Cole, Terry and Gerrard have now lost three times in tournaments via penalty shootouts; it is fast becoming a solely English footballing malady that shows no sign of being treated too quickly. This exit will have hurt more considering the fact that England conceded the advantage in the shootout itself. But on reflection there was no denying that Italy were deserving winners and England fans shouldn’t feel too disappointed about a tournament that had started with such low expectations anyway.

The happiest team of all this evening will be Germany, who will have been only too pleased to see this game go to right to the end.  They will have had an extra two days rest over Italy by the time the semi-final rolls around. And what a semi-final it promises to be.

The German defeat on home soil in the 2006 World Cup semi is still a fresh would for many Germany fans, and one they will be itching to heal. Italy will be the underdogs going into the game, but with Giorgio Chiellini and Thiago Motta to return, and the promising form of Pirlo to boot, hopes will be high that they can sneak another win like that of six years ago.

Hasta La Vista, Les Bleus

Quarter-final 3 – Spain 2-0 France

World and European champions Spain produced a dominant performance to end their hoodoo over France and book a tie against neighbours Portugal in the semi-finals of Euro 2012. A double from Xabi Alonso, making his 100th cap, was enough to see off a lacklustre France, who rarely threatened to change the pattern of the game.

France had never lost to Spain in competitive football before this game. They had also beaten them twice in major tournaments in recent years, once in the quarter-finals of Euro 2000 and again the second round of the 2006 World Cup. But on both those occasions Les Bleus had one Zinedine Zidane in their team. This time round they had a not untalented midfield to call upon, but quite how they would fare against the wizardry of Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta and Co was a question observers were itching to get their teeth into. The answer to that question was not particularly well, which, to be fair, is no real surprise when playing against the world’s best footballing side.

Coach Laurent Blanc made two changes from the side that was defeated 2-0 by Sweden in their last group game. Anthony Reveillere came in for Alou Diarra and slotted in a right back, meaning Mathieu Debuchy was moved forward into right midfield to help counter the threat from Spain’s wing. The other change was to drop Samir Nasri, supposedly the target of dissatisfaction from some members of the squad after the poor showing against Sweden, in favour of the experienced Florent Malouda.

Under Blanc the French approach has been to emulate the type of football played by Spain, with neat and tidy interplay in midfield and reliance on dominating possession. But up against the Spanish, this changed to containment and using the pace of Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema on the break. As expected, Spain enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the first half and came close to opening the scoring when Cesc Fabregas, playing as the ‘false nine’ in place of Fernando Torres, seemed to be clipped in the penalty area by Gael Clichy, with referee Nicola Rizzoli ignoring calls for a spot-kick.

But La Furia Rioja didn’t have to wait long until they broke the stubborn French resistance, scoring a goal that they has become something of a rarity for them in recent times: a header. Iniesta picked slipped a well-weighted pass into the path of Jordi Alba and the onrushing Alonso, left all alone at the back post, headed his deep cross home confidently. It was a goal that had been coming.

France tried to get back into the game but, through a combination of some effective Spanish pressing and their own poor approach play, they simply couldn’t get a proper strike away at Iker Casillas’ goal. Indeed, the only save that Spain’s captain had to make was to tip a 30-yard free-kick from Yohan Cabaye over the bar. There was plenty of industry from Ribéry and Benzema but just no cohesion in the final third.

The second half was much the same story, as the French were kept comfortably at arm’s length. In the brief periods where they did win the ball back, their hastiness to get at the Spanish defence let them down and the surrendered possession far too frequently, to the extreme frustrations of their fans and coach.

Nasri was introduced for Malouda midway through the secong half, while the attacking winger Jeremy Menez came on for Debuchy. But it made little difference to the flow of the game. The closest they came to scoring an equaliser was when Ribéry’s cross-cum-shot was gathered at the near post by Casillas with Olivier Giroud lurking. But curiously enough, even as the minutes wound down, there didn’t seem to be much urgency from France to rescue themselves and force extra time.

They went out with not much more than a whimper, and conceded a second goal in stoppage time when Alonso converted after Pedro was felled by Reveillere. It was an easy day’s work for Spain, made easier by the lack of ambition shown by France. There is a case to make that even Ireland out up more of a fight and they were in the end of a 4-0 hammering.

There is talent among this group of French players, but as in 2010, their campaign has been undermined by infighting and dressing room unrest, with Nasri perceived to be the main problem. The future looks slightly uncertain for them at this point, especially amid rumours that Blanc may be on the verge of taking up the vacant managerial post at Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur.

For Spain, this was a display that will have silenced some of their critics. Observers had derided coach Vicente Del Bosque for his team being too static and his not making the most of the immense talent in their ranks, as they laboured through the group stages with a draw against Italy and a narrow win over Croatia. But those players will now relish the challenge of facing Portugal in the semi-finals, with both the Real Madrid and Barcelona contingent keen to provide another chapter in the story of Cristiano Ronaldo at these championships.

No Bailout for Greece

Quarter-Final 2 – Germany 4-2 Greece

This was by far and away the biggest mismatch of the four quarter-final fixtures. Germany, runners-up at the last European Championships, had reached the last eight here by virtue of three wins from three in the so-called Group of Death and were on a winning streak that had stretched to 15 matches.

Greece, on the other hand, had done well on qualification but scraped through Group A by the skin on their teeth with a 1-0 win over Russia. They were missing inspirational captain Giorgios Karagounis for this match, but in Kostas Katsouranis they had one survivor from the side that surprisingly won Euro 2004. They went into this game hoping to recreate the spirit of that triumph – and for a miracle.

Joachim Löw sprung a surprise or three in his starting line-up, opting to give Marco Reus, André Schürrle and Miroslav Klose a run-out ahead of Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez respectively. It was a ploy to keep the Greeks defenders guessing, since they would have expected to be facing the same attack we have seen so far at these Championships. But it also meant that Germany had a more dynamic look to them with the youthful approach of Rues and Schürrle and the tenacity of Klose.

They laid siege to the Greece goal for practically the entire first half and all three of them missed good goalscoring chances, with Klose having a goal correctly ruled out for off-side. The ball barely fell out of German possession or left the Greece half, as Löw’s sprightly young team continued to dominate. And they finally broke down an extremely stubborn defence shortly before half-time, when captain Philipp Lahm showed the forwards where they were going wrong by rifling a swerving shot into the corner. It was a spectacular effort and one reminiscent of his goal that opened the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Greece continued to defend with their lives in the early moments of the second half. Going forward they had offered next to nothing, but in Dimitris Salpingidis, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgios Samaras they have their own front three that can be dangerous. Fernando Santos’ team bided their time and waited for the opportune moment to strike on the break, as everyone knew they would.

And they found an equaliser with their first real constructed attack of the game. Salpingidis was freed down the right wing and he powered towards the box before releasing a superb ball across the face of goal for Samaras to slide in at the far post. It was a sloppy goal to concede for Germany, with Jerome Boateng too easily beaten to the ball by Samaras.

But this German team have experience enough not to panic and they didn’t have to wait long before they restored their lead. What followed was flurry of goals that took the tie out of Greece’s reach. First, Boateng made up for his earlier lapse by delivering a measured cross into the box for Sami Khedira to time a superb volley into the roof of the net. And seven minutes later it was 3-1 as Klose joined the action, nodding in a simple header from Mesut Özil’s corner.

Marco Reus then finally got the goal his performance warranted with a spectacular strike that seemed to echo some of his best moments for Borussia Mönchengladbach this season. Keeper Michalis Sifakis was off his line in a flash to deny Klose, but he succeeded only in deflecting the ball into Reus’ path and the 23-year-old struck an unstoppable first-time volley, the ball finding the side netting via the underside of the bar.

The three goal salvo had left Greece beaten, though they did manage to score again with ten minutes to go when Boateng was harshly adjudged to have handled a Samaras cross. Salpingidis stepped up to confidently send Manuel Neuer the wrong way and net his second goal of the tournament. But the result had been sewn up and Germany cruised to a comfortable win.

For Greece the tournament has been a great success. Barely anyone gave them a prayer with Russia, Czech Republic and co-hosts Poland in their group. But they showed spirit and determination to qualify in such dramatic fashion and it was always going to take something special for them to get past heavily-fancied Germany.

For Germany this was almost the perfect game and one which vindicated Löw’s decision to change his starting line-up. His new-look front three were fresh and energetic from the off and certainly made a case for themselves to start the semi-final. Reus in particular was a stand-out performer, as were Khedira and Mats Hummels. Mesut Özil may also have gained some confidence after his contribution, setting up Klose for 3-1. Podolski, Gomez and Thomas Müller will all be chomping at the bit to regain their place in the team. That certainly is a pleasant headache for Herr Löw to have. And with a semi-final against Italy or England to come, the players will need no added motivation.

Everybody Loves Ronaldo

Quarter-final 1 – Czech Republic 0-1 Portugal

At the beginning of these championships we worried if the world’s most expensive player would endure another frustrating experience as captain of his country at a major tournament. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo struggled to hit a barn door with a banjo in his first two games at Euro 2012 against Germany and Denmark. But his brilliant performance in the final group game against Holland, coupled with his two goals, showed that he is hitting form at the right time. And it was the Real Madrid superstar that made the difference last night as well, as Portugal overcame a tenacious Czech Republic to become the first side to reach the semi-finals in Poland and Ukraine.

The Czechs were missing their talismanic captain in Tomas Rosicky, rued out with an Achilles problem. But this side, while not boasting the talent that previous Czech teams have had in the past, such as Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky, had shown their grit by winning Group A after a 4-1 opening day defeat to Russia, and the belief was there that they could spring another surprise against the heavily fancied Portuguese.

But under Paulo Bento, Portugal look every inch the well-oiled machine that they were when they reached the final of this competition on home soil in 2004 and it did not take them long hit their stride, with Ronaldo the heartbeat of everything good about them. He had the two best chances of the opening half, first when he was denied by a point-blank save from Petr Cech after a glorious through ball from Joao Moutinho, and then secondly when he struck the post with a quite exquisite chest-trap, turn and half-volley, all executed in the same movement.

For the Czech Republic, Theodor Gebre Selassie did break into some good attacking positions at times, but the defensive pairing of Pepe and Bruno Alves have become a real asset for Portugal so far at these Euros, and they again protected keeper Rui Patricio with some smart defending.

In the second half it continued to be Portugal that made the running. Ronaldo struck the woodwork again when a trademark rasping free-kick clipped the outside of the post with the help of Czech’s fingertips, while substitute Hugo Almeida spurned a great opportunity when he headed Raul Meireles’ cross over the bar from eight yards. With Nani and Ronaldo seeing lots of the ball and Michal Kadlec and Tomas Sivok working overtime in the Czech defence, it seemed only a matter of time before the Czech resistance would be broken.

And they finally caved in with 11 minutes remaining. Moutinho collected Nani’s pass and drove down the right before clipping a delightful cross to the back post, where the onrushing Ronaldo powered an unstoppable downward header past Cech and into the back of the net. Right-back Gebre Selassie was, admittedly, guilty of some horrible ball-watching, but there was a sense of destiny about the goal, and the manner in which it was scored by Portugal’s no. 7.

Czech coach Michael Bilek wore an expression of resignation when the net bulged and you sensed that even with ten minutes remaining plus stoppage time, his team’s tournament was over. 1. FC Nürnberg’s Tomas Pekhart was thrown on in the dying minutes for some extra pressure up front but it made little difference and Portugal saw out a comfortable and deserved victory.

For the Czechs, their overall performance in this tournament can be viewed as a success and coach Bilek deserves credit for getting them to the last eight, especially in view of their disastrous opening day defeat to Russia. Without the inspiration of Rosicky, they looked extremely limited, managing just two efforts on goal, neither of which was on target. Some exciting prospects have been unearthed, such as Gebre Selassie and Vaclav Pilar, soon to join VfL Wolfsburg. The old guard of their side, the likes of Rosicky, Milan Baros and Jaroslav Plasil, will probably have one more tournament left in them before they are phased out of the national team.

For Portugal, who will play the winner of France or Spain in the semi-finals, the immediate future looks very bright indeed. They have sent a warning to the rest of the tournament, not just by qualifying first, but also by delivering improving performances. Apart from Helder Postiga who will miss the game through injury, they will be at full strength for next week’s semi-final.

And in Cristiano Ronaldo, they have, quite simply, Europe’s best player. His three goals at this tournament have been of the highest quality and have come in the last two matches, when things are heating up and we reach the business end of affairs. It would be a safe bet to say that neither France nor Spain have a defender who can cope with him in this form, although Spain Sergio Ramos will have a good idea of how to approach handling him.

He is clearly a cut above the rest of his team, but as Jürgen Klinsmann pointed out on the BBC’s post-match coverage of the game, if his teammates can raise their level of performance by an iota or two as well, you have is a team fully capable of winning the European Championships.

To be fair, they beat a side they were expected to beat, with Ronaldo delivering what he was expected to deliver – the winning goal. But there is an inescapable view that this team looks ready to win a championship. The goalkeeper is sound, the defence solid, the midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, Meireles and Moutinho cohesive and they are brimming with attacking talent on the flanks in Nani, Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao. Add Ronaldo to that mix and there is one hell of a team hitting form at precisely the right time.

Heartbreak for the Hosts

Group D Matchday 3 review- England 1-0 Ukraine, Sweden 2-0 France

Group D put up a sterling fight in its bid to provide as much drama as its three predecessors on matchday 3 at this European Championships. England conjured some of the spirit of Chelsea’s Champions League triumph this season by grinding out yet another narrow victory, but it was a result not without a huge slice of fortune and a major piece of controversy. In the group’s other game, France put their fans through the mill by scraping through to the knock-out stages as runners up, despite a worryingly poor performance.

Going into the final game, England, Ukraine and France were the teams contesting the remaining two quarter-final spots; Sweden had already been eliminated after losing their first two matches. England needed just a point to be assured of qualification, while they could also win the group by achieving a better result that the French. Laurent Blanc’s French side could only be eliminated if they lost by two or more goals and if England failed to beat Ukraine. For the co-hosts, nothing less than a win would do for them to book their place in the next round.

Roy Hodgson’s England team had taken four points from their first two games and they also had the luxury of welcoming back Wayne Rooney to the starting line-up, after the Manchester United striker’s red card in the last qualifier against Montenegro had ruled him out of his side’s first two Euro 2012 games. Predictably, then, there was plenty of optimism among the English fans and media that Ukraine would be no match for this new-look England team with its organised approach and tactical maturity.

But Ukraine were carrying the hopes of a nation at their first ever European Championships and, as co-hosts, were understandably reluctant to be excused from the Euro 2012 dining table. Record scorer Andriy Shevchenko was only fit enough for the bench, but his replacement Artem Milevskiy did a fine job in his stead in making life difficult for the English defenders. He was ably supported by wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplianka and the three of them proved extremely difficult for England’s 4-4-2 formation to contain in the first half.

Konoplianka had a bullet effort crucially blocked by John Terry, while Yarmolenko should have done better than to place a tame shot into the arms of Joe Hart. England had arguably the best opportunity of the half when Rooney, who looked distinctly off the pace after his two-game absence, failed to properly connect with Ashley Young’s inviting cross and sent a poor header wide of goal.

The news from from Kiev was that Sweden and France were deadlocked at 0-0 after the first half. But surprisingly it had been Sweden that had made most of the running and the better chances in the first period, with Ola Toivonen the primary guilty party. After outmuscling Philippe Mexes he was in on goal, but despite rounding keeper Hugo Lloris, he could only fire against the outside of the post from a tight angle. France had enjoyed plenty of possession in the first 45 minutes, but their final pass them down considerably.

It was as you were at the half-way mark in the two games, but we had to wait just three more minutes before England scored and changed the complexion of the group. Steven Gerrard, England’s captain and arguably most consistent performer at the Euros so far, got the better of Yarmolenko and delivered a wicked cross into the near post. The ball took two deflections and was spilled by a nervy Andriy Pyatov in the Ukraine goal, leaving Rooney with the simple task of heading in at the back post for, quite remarkably, his first goal at a major international tournament for just under eight years.

England’s gameplan was working, as they had defended their goal considerably and hit their opponents with a sucker-punch. But it didn’t deter the home side in the slightest. They continued to attack at pace and created a number of chances to level affairs. Milevskiy was the first to have Ukrainian’s heats in mouths when he inexplicable missed the target with a header from six yards.

But then came the most contentious decision of the tournament so far, and one that will further fan the flames of the need for goalline technology. Another quick break released Marko Devic, whose shot was only half-saved by the sprawling Hart. The ball bounced up towards the goal and was hacked off the line heroically by John Terry. The partisan fans screamed with one voice that it had cross the line, as did the Ukraine players, but the officials were unmoved. Video replays, however, confirmed that the whole ball had crossed the line, however, and, just as with Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ against Germany in 2010, Ukraine had been cheated.

Still the home side swarmed forward like water on English rock. In the meantime there had been news from Kiev, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s spectacular volley had put Sweden 1-0 up against France. Ukraine still had to score twice to make sure of qualifying for the next phase and coach Oleg Blokhin sent on national hero Shevchenko in a bid to change the game. But aside from a rasping drive by Konoplianka that Hart did well to save, England’s defence held firm. Then came more news of even greater significance, as another volleyed finish, this time from Sebastian Larsson, had put Sweden 2-0 up.

It meant Ukraine only needed to equalise in the few minutes remaining to send themselves through and the French out. But England showed their disciplined side – fast becoming their signature quality under Hodgson – to see out the result. They could even have scored a second on the counter-attack but for a wasteful piece of play by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

It was heartbreaking for the legions of home supporters to think that had Devic’s strike been given as a goal, as it rightly had crossed the line, they would be preparing themselves for a quarter-final clash with Spain on Saturday evening. Instead it will be France who will meet the World and current European Champions in Donetsk, an intensely sobering through for French supporters, who saw their team comfortably defeated by a Swedish side with nothing to play for but pride. The French have a decent record against Spain in recent years, having beaten them in the 2006 World Cup and at Euro 2000, and La Furia Rioja did qualify somewhat laboriously themselves. But Blanc’s team will surely be regretting a lacklustre performance that handed sovereignty in Group D to a functional if unspectacular England.

For the Three Lions, they will be mightily relieved to be playing Italy in the quarter-finals, a fixture with not too many precedents to draw from. Gli Azzuri beat England on their way to winning Euro 1980, but the two teams have not met in a major tournament since the Third Place Play-off at World Cup ‘90, hardly the most important of fixtures. With both of these sides likely to play a low-risk game based on discipline and organisation, don’t expect a classic. It may very well be the case that we see precious little in the way of expressive, flowing football. But one of these two teams will be in the last four. From then on it’s a lottery, even if the winner does have to play Germany in the semi-finals.

Group C Matchday 3 review- Croatia 0-1 Spain, Italy 2-0 Ireland

The World and European Champions Spain made it 15 wins in their last 17 competitive games as they stumbled to an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Slaven Bilic’s Croatia team. In the other game, meanwhile, Italy overcame a predictably stubborn Irish side to record a 2-0 win and go through as group runners-up.

Since one team had already been eliminated from the tournament going into matchday 3, this group didn’t quite hit the dramatic heights of those reached in groups A and B in the previous two days. Ireland’s chances of progression had been snuffed out by a heavy 4-0 defeat to Spain on matchday two and they were playing for pride when they took on Italy. But they could still affect the final standings in the group.

The Italians needed to win to make sure of qualifying for the knock-out stage, but they also had to hope for a winner in the game between Spain and Croatia. A 2-2 draw or higher between those two teams would likely have sent them both through at Italy’s expense. There was even the possibility of Spain being eliminated if they were beaten by Croatia and Italy were victors over Ireland.

In Poznan, Ireland were keen to give their fans something more than just being along for the sing-song. Giovanni Trapattoni’s side did what they had so far been unable to manage at these Championships and negotiated the first five minutes of the game without conceding. They did threaten in isolated periods on the break, with Aiden McGeady their most potent threat down the left, but the first half was dominated by the men in blue.

Coach Claudio Cesare Prandelli, a former protégé of his counterpart Trapattoni, fielded Antonio di Natale in place of Mario Balotelli for this game, and the diminutive striker was a handful for the Irish. He had two or three decent shots blocked, and the ‘little and little’ pairing of himself and Antonio Cassano posed problems for an under-confident Irish defence. A goal was coming for Gli Azzuri and it arrived on 36 minutes when Cassano glanced in Andrea Pirlo’s corner.

That goal mean that put Italy into top spot in the group place temporarily, with Spain in second place and Croatia in third. The onus was now on the Croats to score. In Danzig, they were faced with the customary Spanish ‘tiki-taka’ and had to weather periods of sustained Spanish pressure. But the defensive pairing of Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld defended stoutly, backed up ably by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who saved well from Fernando Torres.

It was a below-par performance from the Spanish that lacked any real urgency. Xavi, Iniesta & Co. remained content to pass the opposition into submission, but they rarely threatened the Croatian goal in truth. And this gave Bilic’s team belief that they could knock out the world’s best team altogether. Luka Modric assumed the role of playmaker after the break and he almost conjured an equaliser for his side, but Sevilla midfield man Ivan Rakitic headed his brilliant cross straight at keeper Iker Casillas. The psychologies of the two sides had been changed by news of Italy’s goal, and even the Spanish looked concerned, as defeat for them would mean an early and unexpected exit.

As the second half wore on in Danzig, both sides were playing with a certain level of apprehension, anxious that the slightest mistake could see them facing elimination. But it was ultimately the quality of the Spanish bench that rescued them. Cesc Fabregas was introduced in place of David Silva and the Barcelona ace soon began to menace a tiring Croatian defence. He released Iniesta with a sumptuous chip in the box and the midfield maestro had only to roll the ball across the goal for substitute Jesus Navas to gleefully smash in the winner.

It more or less decided group C, as Croatia now had to find two goals with just a few minutes remaining, a task they were not up to after putting in such a mammoth effort. The late goal scored by Italy’s Mario Balotelli in Poznan did little to change much, as Croatia had already been effectively beaten. Despite three very good performances, they exit the tournament in third place, with group whipping boys Ireland making up the rear.

It was not a vintage performance by the Spanish by any stretch of the imagination, as the coach Vincente Del Bosque admitted afterwards. But it was still enough to win the group, meaning they will now face the runner-up in Group D, while Italy will be pitted against the winners in the last eight.

Group D matchday 3 preview – England vs. Ukraine, Sweden vs. France

The last two quarter-final spots in this year’s UEFA Euro 2012 will be contested by England, co-hosts Ukraine and France. England face Ukraine in Donetsk on Tuesday evening knowing that a draw will be enough to see them through, regardless of what happens between France and Sweden.

Ukraine will be spurred on by a massively partisan home crowd as they attempt to make the knock-out stages in their maiden European Championships appearance, and nothing less than a victory will do for them. France can win the group, and avoid Spain in the last eight, if they better England’s result against Ukraine. Sweden are also already out of the tournament after losing their first two games, but they can stop the French advancing by beating them.

Group B Denmark 2-1 Germany, Portugal 2-1 Holland

As with Group A, all four teams harboured ambitions of making the quarter-finals. The remaining two fixtures gave us tension, elation and heartbreak in equal measure on matchday three. Germany finished up as leaders of the group with three wins and nine points, while Portugal defeated Holland in a thrilling encounter to take second spot in the group.

Despite having beaten the Portuguese and the Dutch in their opening two games, there still remained a risk that Germany might not progress. Were they to lose to Denmark and Portugal to win, Germany would be out. So Joachim Löw’s side needed a draw at the very least to be safe. Portugal had to beat Holland and hope that Denmark were beaten by Germany for them to go through, while Holland needed a German win and a victory by two or more goals against Portugal on account of their inferior goal difference Denmark had to get at least a draw and hope that Portugal were beaten by Holland, but by less than two goals.

Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk gambled significantly with his first eleven, starting Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart, with Nigel de Jong the only recognised defensive player aside from the back four and goalkeeper. And it was a gamble that looked like it would pay off in the early moments of the game.

The Dutch looked in the mood – as they had to be – with van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder spraying some zippy passes around the pitch. They scored the first of the two goals they needed after just 11 minutes when Tottenham’s van der Vaart curled in a sublime effort from 20 yards.

But Portugal have pace, invention and flair to burn in attack and responded extremely well to going a goal down. Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Helder Postiga ably made use of the space that Holland’s attacking formation afforded them and an equaliser was only a matter of time in coming. After Ronaldo had struck the base of the post and Postiga sent shot off target, the Real Madrid superstar then made amends by seizing onto Joao Pereira’s expert through ball and firing past Maarten Stekelenburg.

Meanwhile in Lviv, Germany had the lead through Lukas Podolski on the striker’s 100th international appearance on 19 minutes, juts reward for an explosive start from the Germans. Thomas Müller’s first-half performance included time and again the weaving runs into the channel that destroyed England in Bloemfontein two years ago, with himself, Mario Gomez and Podolski all going close and the Danes chasing shadows.

It was no surprise that the goal came from good work by Müller. Gomez deflected his cross from the right and Podolski stole in to crash home his 44th international goal. Denmark had barely been involved in the contest, but they punished some German sloppiness to equalise out of the blue a matter of minutes later. Nicklas Bendtner leapt like a salmon to head a deep corner back into the six-yard box and Michael Krohn-Dehli was on hand to nod in from close range for his second of the tournament. At half time it was “as you were” in the group, with Germany in top spot followed by Denmark.

Back in Kharkiv, Portugal were beginning to look more and more dangerous on the break. After their confident start, the Dutch completely lost any rhythm after they had conceded and were utterly unable to get a foothold in the game through any real period of sustained possession. Coupled with their dangerously top-heavy appearance – they now needed three goals to progress – the Portuguese attack was rubbing its hands together.

Nani was denied by a brilliant save from Stekelenburg, before Fabio Coentrao also had an effort pushed away. But Portugal, and Ronaldo, had the bit between their teeth and went 2-1 up on the night with another lightning counter-attack. Nani surged down the right and played a delicious pass into the path of Ronaldo, who dummied a defender before nonchalantly stroking home on 74 minutes, rendering Holland’s tournament effectively over.

Ronaldo’s goal changed the face of Group B in an instant. Denmark had now dropped into third and needed a goal to rescue themselves from going out. But even more intriguingly, a Danish goal would also have meant Germany, tournament favourites and the group’s strongest side, would be staring down the barrel of elimination as well. And just moments after Ronaldo’s effort in Kharkiv, the Danes came within a whisker of going in front. Bendtner trapped a long pass over the top, but he couldn’t get a clean contact on the ball and Manuel Neuer was able to gather.

The Arsenal striker gesticulated furiously that he had been held back and video replays vindicated him, as Holger Badstuber had clearly pulled his shirt. It was a game- and possibly group-changing moment, as it would have meant a penalty to Denmark and, in all probability, a red card for Badstuber. Germany’s second-half performance had been quite laboured and ordinary in comparison with their display in the opening 45 minutes and being a goal behind and a man down would have been a huge mountain to climb for them, even for a team as talented as theirs.

As it was, Löw’s team made the very most of that reprieve and countered swiftly to retake the lead. A strong run from Mesut Özil released Lars Bender and the makeshift right-back coolly passed in his first international goal. It changed the complexion of the group further and eased the pressure on Portugal, since Denmark now needed to score twice. But after such a plucky display, a second goal as beyond them.

It had been a tournament to forget for the Dutch, who leave with the ignominy of three consecutive losses in competitive matches for the first time since 1905. Denmark fought bravely in the Group of Death, but will rue the late goal conceded against Portugal and the decision that went against them in the Germany game. Portugal will be very confident of making the semi-finals after CRonaldo has hit form, while the same goes for Germany, who are heavily fancied to beat Greece in their last eight clash on Friday.

On Monday we see the finale to Group C, where Italy, Spain and Croatia have the chance of going through to the knock-out stages. Italy face Ireland needing a positive result, but are relying completely on Spain doing them a favour by beating Croatia. A draw for both those sides will mean Italy need to win by a handsome margin against Ireland to progress.

Despite the fact that Spain are already through, my tip would be to watch them come up against a talented Croatia team, rather than an Italian manager lining up a defensively-minded Irish team against Italy.

Group A Russia 0-1 Greece, Poland 0-1 Czech Republic

It was derided as the tournament’s weakest group but it provided the most drama at the European Championships so far as Greece and the Czech Republic eliminated Russia and Poland respectively.

Russia took on Greece looking all but guaranteed to qualify for the quarter-finals. Having scored four in their opening game against the Czechs, the expectations were that would have no trouble whatsoever turning over a leaky Greek defence. Greece had to win to stand any chance of qualifying. In the other game Poland also needed a victory at any cost. Michael Billek’s Czech Republic side were on three points before last night’s game, meaning at least a draw would send them through.

Poland had enjoyed a decent first half on matchday 1 but failed to put Greece to the sword. In their second game, they fought back superbly for a draw with favourites Russia. So needing a win in their final game, Polish fans would have been optimistic that their team could reach the next stage.

Backed by the vociferous home support, they started well and Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski fired wide of the post when he might have done better. Ludovic Obraniak produced some dangerous moments from set-pieces, but on a rain-soaked pitch in Warsaw, the home side were well marshalled by the Czech defence, Tomas Hubschmann looking particularly solid. In truth it was a game light on drama, until the 72nd minute, that is, when Petr Jiracek stunned the co-hosts and slotted in for his second of the tournament.

It was a disaster for the Poles, as they now needed two goals. They fought bravely, with Marcin Wasilewski and Jakub Blaszczykowski going agonisingly close to levelling matters. But it was not to be for Poland, and after an encouraging start they have exited the tournament at the first hurdle.

And if that was unexpected, you would have been hard pushed to predict what would transpire in the game’s other group. Russia laid siege to the Greece goal in the first half, with Alexander Kerzhakov and Andrey Arshavin inches away from opening their accounts for the tournament. The Greeks, who had offered next to nothing in attack in that first period, were hoping to get to the interval still on level terms. But they were unexpectedly presented with a golden chance and they took it gleefully.

Yuri Zhirkov’s error let in veteran captain Giorgios Karagounis and the midfielder drilled a low shot under the body of Igor Malafeev. The strike arrived 20 seconds before the end of added time in the first half; there could not have been a better time to score. After the break, Russia again pushed forward, but their play lacked the direction and incisiveness of previous games and they struggled without Kerzhakov, who had been withdrawn for Roman Pavlyuchenko at half time.

Indeed, it was Greece who should have registered the next goal, with Karagounis extremely unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty – he was actually booked for diving and will now miss the quarter-final – and Giorgos Tzavellas striking the woodwork with a superb free-kick. Alan Dzagoev then almost grabbed the draw that would have sent the Russians through, but his glancing heard drifted agonisingly wide of the post.

Karagounis and the rest of the Greece squad streamed onto the pitch in elation at the final whistle. In his post-match interview, Greece’s joint-most experienced player compared the achievement to winning the tournament in Portugal in Euro 2004 and added, “We kept our promise and now all Greeks can celebrate. When we are united nobody can stop us.” That they have qualified for the knockout stages when barely anyone gave them a prayer is certainly reminiscent of that 2004 triumph, when they were victors despite being 100-1 outsiders at the start of the tournament.

Group B preview, Matchday 3: Denmark vs. Germany, Holland vs. Portugal

Fernando Santos’ Greece team are likely to face Germany in the next round, if Joachim Löw’s team can get the draw they need to win Group B. They take on Denmark this evening in a repeat of the Euro 1992 final. The other game sees Holland play Portugal. The Dutch have beaten tonight’s opponents only once in their last ten meetings. They have also lost their first two matches and lie bottom of the group.

But they can still qualify if they win by two goals and Denmark lose to Germany. With Bert van Marwijk likely to field an attacking line-up including Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, this game looks certain to throw us some drama, perhaps even as surprising as last night. We shall see.

Group A – matchday 3 preview Czech Rep vs. Poland, Greece vs. Russia

After being humbled by a rampant Russia on matchday 1, the Czechs rescued their campaign by beating Greece in their second game. Co-hosts Poland meanwhile have just two points following two draws. Franciszek Smuda’s team will have been boosted by the way they came back to hold the group’s strongest side, Russia, but their remit is simple: anything less than a win and they will be out of the tournament, with the Czechs going through instead.

In the other game, Greece can still spring a surprise and advance to the knockout stages if they beat Russia by a handsome scoreline. All four teams can still qualify, but with Russia heavily fancied to have enough to beat the 2004 winners, Poland’s clash with the Czechs is my pick of the games to watch this evening.

Euro 2012 Group Stage Match Day Two

Group D

Ukraine 0-2 France

With Ukraine leading the group after their dramatic 2-1 win over Sweden on matchday 1, this was a chance for the co-hosts to lay an even stronger claim to one of the top two spots in the group. They were up against France, who themselves had had a disappointing result against England and were looking to get their campaign off and running at the second attempt.

Ukraine would play to their strengths, shutting the French out and hitting them on the counter-attack as England had done, while Laurent Blanc’s men would use their creativity in midfield and attack. After a long delay due to heavy rain, the pitch was deemed playable again and the teams took to the field. The first half was a tight affair and the hosts deserved credit for limiting France to just one or two chances.

But in the second period, the French quality in the final third told. Jeremy Menez, a replacement for Florent Malouda in the first game, finally found the back of the net with his third attempt on goal when he sneaked a left-foot shot inside the near post. And it was 0-2 in a matter of minutes as Newcastle United’s Yohan Cabaye got forward to finish past Andriy Pyatov, with Les Bleus seeing out a comfortable win.

Sweden 2-3 England

There was smoke blown from both camps in the build-up to this game. England had had something of a jinx when it came to playing Sweden, having not beaten them in a competitive game in forty years, their last meeting a 2-2 draw in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup.

But England had a manager in Roy Hodgson who had overseen wins over Sweden for both Switzerland and Finland. England played more boldly than against France in this game, opting for two up front in an orthodox 4-4-2, with Andy Carroll, the most expensive English player ever, starting in attack. And it was to be Carroll and Co’s day.

He opened the scoring with a bullet header from a wonderful Steven Gerard cross and England led 1-0 at the break. Uncharacteristically, however, the Three Lions then conceded two sloppy goals from set-pieces, both scored by former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg. After looking comfortable, England were suddenly on the back foot at 2-1 down.

But cue one of the substitutions of the tournament so far: Theo Walcott was introduced in place of James Milner and the much-maligned winger made an instant, match-winning impact. With only his third touch of the ball he crashed in a shot from the edge of the box to draw the teams level, before he then crossed for Danny Welbeck to finish with an expert back-heel into the corner.

England had turned the game around.

It could have been an even more handsome win for Hodgson’s men, but Gerrard was denied by a point-blank save from Sweden stopper Andreas Isaksson.

Sweden are now eliminated after two defeats, while France and England are joint-top of the group on four points apiece, with the French in first place courtesy of goal difference. England need only a point in their final game to qualify, but they may well go for the win against Ukraine, since finishing second will likely mean a quarter-final berth with Spain.

But England fans should take heed. Twelve years ago at Euro 2000, England defeated Germany 1-0 and needed just a point against Romania in the final group game to qualify. They ended up losing 3-2 with an idiotic penalty conceded by one Phil Neville. His brother Gary is now a defensive coach under Hodgson – one hopes there will be no such repeat this time around.

Group C

Italy 1-1 Croatia

With Spain generally considered the strongest team in the group and likely to go through as group winners, Italy versus Croatia almost had the feel of a play-off for second spot. After the creditable opening draw against Spain, characterised by a disciplined shape and defensive rigidity, this game saw more of the fluid Italy that we witnessed in 2006, with the strings being pulled by mercurial midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo.

The Azzuri missed a host of chances in the first half, Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli two of the main culprits. Still they did manage to go in at the break a goal to the good when Stipe Pletikosa was beaten by Pirlo’s curling free-kick. The second half was more of an even affair, with Tottenham’s Luka Modric going close for the Croats and Balotelli flashing a couple of decent efforts narrowly off target.

But with only a one-goal lead, the Italians were always vulnerable and their usually reliable defence was breached on 72 minutes. FC Bayern Munich’s Daniel Pranjic lofted in a cross and Wolfsburg’s Mario Mandzukic was there to control and fire past Gianluigi Buffon from close range.

The draw was a confidence boost for Slaven Bilic’s team and reward for a stoic showing. But they really needed a win. With Italy likely to beat Ireland on matchday 3, Croatia will have to get at least a point against the Spanish to finish as runners-up, a tall order indeed.

Spain 4-0 Republic of Ireland

This was a truly dominant Spain performance and one that belied their unusually lacklustre opening display against Italy. On a well-watered pitch in Gdansk, Del Bosque’s side settle into their rhythm very quickly and looked once more like the Spain of the previous two tournaments.

Ireland did have a couple of half-chances from a Robbie Keane shot and a Richard Dunne header, but in truth this was men against boys for 90 minutes. Fernando Torres, recalled to the starting line-up in place of Cesc Fabregas, opening the scoring with a powerful drive on four minutes. David Silva slotted in a clever second before Torres ran through to make it 3-0. Fabregas completed the rout when he smashed in a late fourth.

Spain’s motor is now well and truly running and the odds will be stacked against Croatia in the next game as they try and stop the current World and European Champions. For Ireland, it was always going to be a massive test for them against Spain and many people predicted they would lose heavily. But the real damage was done in the first game, a 3-1 loss to Croatia, in which their normally reliable defence gifted away three goals.

Despite having been so miserly in qualifying and in their recent friendlies, Ireland have now conceded seven in two games, and a goal within the first five minutes of every half in the tournament so far. They are out of the Euros now but they still have pride to play for in their final group game against Italy, which may end up doing Croatia a massive favour.

Group A

Greece 1-2 Czech Republic

In the weakest group in the competition, there was plenty of incentive for these two teams to make a case for  qualification after a difficult first game. The Czechs had been humbled by the fluidity of Russia’s attack, led by a rejuvenated Andrei Arshavin, but now had two easier fixtures in hand. Greece, for their part, had endured a difficult start against the co-hosts Poland, but rallied in the secong half and gained an impressive point on matchday 1.

But in a similar fashion to the Poland game, the Greeks found themselves under pressure right from the off. Just three minutes had been played when VfL Wolfsburg’s Petr Jiracek ran onto a pass and slotted in for 1-0, before Vaclav Pilar bundled in a second a few moments later.  It was the quickest 2-0 deficit recorded in the history of the European Championships.

Greece fought back and were thrown a lifeline in the second half when Petr Czech’s horrendous spill presented Theofanis Gekas of Eintracht Frankfurt with an open goal for 2-1. But try as they might, Fernando Santos’ side could not find an equaliser.

They now face the daunting prospect of needing to beat Russia in their final game. The Czechs meanwhile will have to avoid defeat against the co-hosts to ensure qualification.

Poland 1-1 Russia

This was always going to be a tense affair between two countries with a complicated history. Some sections of the Polish press had evoked memories of Poland’s win in the Russo-Japanese war in the 1920s, as well as the era of Communist domination of Poland, a much more recent phenomenon.

The match itself also happened to fall on Russia Day, an excuse for thousands of Russian fans to march patriotically through the city of Warsaw to the National Stadium, resulting in isolated incidents of violence between the two sets of fans.

The game itself was just as heated, with the teams spurred on by an electric atmosphere inside the arena. It was Russia that struck first, with Alan Dzagoev hitting his third goal of the tournament so far with a glanced header from Arshavin’s free-kick. But the hosts were not to be denied and thundered their way back into the game. after a quick breakaway, Borussia Dortmund winger Jakub Blaszczykowski cut inside and rifled an unstoppable drive into the top corner, the goal of the tournament so far.

It was one of the more entertaining draws of the competition so far and both sides could have won it. That they didn’t now leaves us with a mouth-watering prospect as to how Group A will finish.

Group B

Denmark 2-3 Portugal

In the ‘group of death’, Denmark had the chance to all but pull the curtain down on Portugal at Euro 2012, while Cristiano Ronaldo & Co were in desperate need of a win after their opening-day defeat to Germany. In a truly riveting encounter, Portugal went two goals up through a crashing Pepe header and a near post finish from Helder Postiga.

The Danes seemed shell-shocked but they did manage to pull one back when Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner headed in at the back post. In the second period, Ronaldo continued to majorly disappoint on the biggest stage by missing two clear-cut one-on-ones. And he was almost made to pay when Bendtner lost Pepe at the back post and headed in again for 2-2.

Another excellent game looked to be heading for a draw, until Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela made his mark on the tournament by hammering in a drive from 12 yards with just three minutes on the clock. The plucky Danes huffed and puffed but a third goal was out of their reach and the Portuguese held on for a crucial three points.

Germany 2-1 Holland

There are few rivalries in international football with as much animosity and historical significance than Holland vs. Germany. Germany beat Holland in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, before the Dutch gained revenge in Euro 1988, beating Germany in Hamburg on their way to becoming European Champions. And in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Frank Rijkaard infamously spat in the hair of Germany’s Rudi Völler.

Going into this fixture, Germany had the advantage of being able to play on the counter-attack, something they excel at, since Holland had lost their first game and needed a win here. The Dutch started brightly and dominated possession, with Robin van Persie going close with a volley. But their defence remains a weakness, and it was ruthlessly exposed by a clinical Germany.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, who enjoyed one of his best games for some time, picked out his Bayern Munich teammate Mario Gomez with two excellent through balls and the striker continued his ruthless streak by smashing home on both occasions for his second and third goals of the tournament.

Trailing 2-0 at half-time, Holland made changes at the break, introducing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart, and switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Van Persie netted with a sweet strike on 2 minutes to set us up for a gripping final period to the game, but it was Germany that managed to grind out the remaining few minutes and hold on for their second win in two games.

Mats Hummels was again impressive, as were the Bayern contingent of Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Gomez. Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer both deserved mentions also for outstanding blocks at crucial moments.

Joachim Löw’s Germany stay in pole position to win the group. Denmark can qualify if they better Portugal’s result on matchday 3, while Holland have just a very slim chance of negotiating the group phase.

Euro 2012 Group Stage Match Day One

So after four days, eight games and 20 goals, the first round of group stage matches at the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine has been navigated. We have seen the Russians impress with some fluid attacking football, Denmark shock Holland, Italy hold current World and European champions Spain and Ukraine register their maiden win in their maiden appearance at Europe’s most prestigious international tournament. There have been some poor refereeing decisions, some great goals and bad misses. Sport Eagle rounds up all the action here for you now.

Group A

Poland 1-1 Greece

In the game’s opening game between co-hosts Poland and 2004 surprise winners Greece, we saw co-hosts Poland fail to live up to many observers’ pre-match expectations. Much of the pre-match talk had focused on Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, scorer of 23 goals in the Bundesliga last season and the spearhead of the Polish attack. Seen by many as an excellent bet to be the tournament’s top scorer, he got Euro 2012 up and running with an accomplished downward header from club teammate Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski’s teasing cross.

A very weak-looking Greece team, sorely lacking in the defensive solidity that characterised their triumph in 2004 under legendary German coach Otto Rehhagel, were then harshly reduced to ten men when Werder Bremen’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos was given a second yellow card. In the second half, however, the Greeks came roaring back. A sloppy but important equaliser was scored by substitute Dimitris Salpingidis, before the same player was then brought down by Polish keeper Wojcech Sczcesny, resulting in a red card and a penalty. Greek captain Giorgios Karagounis was unable to repeat his feat of scoring in two opening European Championhsip matches – he netted against Portugal in 2004 – as sub keeper Przemyslaw Tyton saved his weak effort. A draw was a fair result for both teams.

Russia 4-1 Czech Republic

In the evening game, Russia took ruthless advantage of Poland’s failure to win their opening game by overpowering the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. CSKA Moscow’s prestigious talent Alan Dzagoev and Zenit St. Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov put the Russian’s 2-0 up before Vaclav Pilar, soon to join VfL Wolfsburg, pulled one back for the Czechs. Dzagoev then scored his second on the counter-attack after being set up by Roman Pavlyuchenko, before the ex-Tottenham Hotspur striker himself then smashed in a fourth. Russia have thrown down the gauntlet in the tournament’s easiest group.

Group B

Holland 0-1 Denmark

Along with Spain and Germany, Holland were also one of the favourites to win the tournament, while, by contrast, Denmark were seen as the weakest team in the ‘group of death.’ And so it was that we witnessed the first big shock of the tournament so far. Holland’s attacking players were supposed to sweep all before them: Arsenal’s Robin van Persie and Schalke’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were both golden boot winners in their respective leagues this season, while Wesley Sneijder had scored six goals in his last two major tournaments in 2010 and 2008. But they failed to make any of their 28 attempts on goal count. Denmark were simply more ruthless when it counted and won the game thanks to a superb solo gal from Michael Krohn-Dehli. The next round of games in group B will be fascinating, as Denmark face Portugal, whom they finished ahead of in qualifying, while Holland have to beat Germany.

Germany 1-0 Portugal

Indeed, it turned out to be a very good day for Germany fans. After delighting in their perennial rivals Holland’s defeat, they managed to squeeze out a narrow 1-0 win over Portugal. The Portuguese posed their fair share of problems for Joachim Löw’s Germany side, and came within inches of opening the scoring in the first half when Pepe’s drive from close range struck the underside of the bar. Thankfully this decision was more clear-cut than previous ones involving Germany and a goalline – the ball clearly bounced directly on the line and away to safety. And the Germans made the most of their good-fortune.

On 72 minutes, Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez, pilloried recently for his poor performance in the UEFA Champions League final, banished his demons by planting a firm header into the corner. It was a fantastic moment for Gomez and he had certainly repaid the faith shown in him by Löw. Other notable performers in the game were Manuel Neuer, who made a crucial save from Silvestre Varela to preserve Germany’s lead late on, and Dortmund’s Mats Hummels, who was an imperious presence at the back.

Wednesday’s game with Holland has the potential to take a place in the forefront of German minds for many years to come: win and Germany can take a huge step to winning the group, as well as putting Holland on the verge of an embarrassing group stage exit.

Group C

Spain 1-1 Italy

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque surprised a lot of people by opting for six midfielders and no strikers against Italy on Sunday, as Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva made up the front three. It took a while to bear fruit for the best team in the world, as a combination of energetic pressing from the Italians and an overly dry pitch prevented Spain from settling into their customary passing rhythm. They were rushed and sloppy in possession and often resorted to playing long balls in a first half low on chances.

Italy, for their part, looked energised by their front pairing of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, and their 3-5-2 formation allowed them to switch quickly and efficiently from defence to attack. Substitute and Serie A veteran Antonio di Natale put them ahead early on in the second half before Fabregas equalised from a deft pass by Silva not long afterwards.

Republic of Ireland 1-3 Croatia

That draw left the field open for one of Ireland or Croatia to take pole position in the group, and it was the technically superior Croatians that managed it. Ireland display all the characteristics of a Catenacchio-style team under management duo Marco Tardelli and former Bayern manager Giovanni Trapattoni. They play with a highly organised and defensively-minded approach and were unbeaten in their last 14 games, keeping 11 clean sheets in that time. But this game belied that recent Irish record as goals from Everton’s Nikica Jelavic and a brace from Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic consigned the Irish to a disappointing and damaging defeat, with two very difficult group fixtures still to come.

Group D

France 1-1 England

New England manager Roy Hodgson had overseen two stubborn 1-0 friendly wins in his first two games in charge, and this game was another that spelled out his credentials of defensive discipline and positional rigidity. Set-pieces are something that England will need to make the most of in this tournament and they took the lead in that fashion when Steven Gerrard’s superbly delivered free-kick was headed in by Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott for his first England goal on half an hour.

The lead was short-lived, however, as another City player, this time Samir Nasri, rattled in a near-post drive to equalise for the French. On the back of a 20-match unbeaten run and clearly a superior footballing side, France dominated possession and spent long periods in England territory. England struggled to retain possession and did not give great service to the front players of Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck. But one team was certainly more pleased with the point than the other.

Ukraine 2-1 Sweden

Perhaps the most special moment of the whole group stage came in the very last game. Ukraine had had to put up with a lot of negative press in the run-up to the tournament, concerning issues such as in-stadium racism and violence, exorbitant hotel prices for travelling fans and the government’s treatment of political opponents. But they made sure that this morning’s headlines were all about the football, as they came from behind to win their first ever match in the European Championships, and, no less, in their very first appearance in the competition.

One AC Milan superstar put the Swedes ahead early on in the second half when captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic tapped in from close range. But another, this time a former Rossoneri hero in Andriy Schevchenko, ensured victory for the co-hosts with two predatory headers. It had been mooted that the national team’s record goalscorer might not have been included in Oleg Blokhin’s squad at all, after injuries and poor form had restricted him to a mediocre season at Dynamo Kiev. But he is even more the national hero than he was – not that he needed to do anymore to achieve that accolade.

The delight on his face as he charged onto the pitch at the final whistle was mirrored by the elation of the fans gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square. The other impressive performers for Ukraine were Bayern’s Anatoliy Tymoschchuk and home-grown Dynamo winger Andriy Yarmolenko. France will be up against a team full of belief on matchday two this Friday.

  

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