The quarter-finalists are…
JUNE 12 — With the first set of group games completed, we can start to form a picture of who will qualify for the next stage of the European Championships.
Unlike my last article — when I ended up tipping virtually every team to win the thing — I’m going to get off the fence and predict which eight teams will progress to the quarter-finals. Let’s look at it group by group:
Poland and Greece served up a pretty tedious opening encounter on Friday evening, enlivened only by an erratic refereeing display from Spaniard Carlos Velasco Carballo.
Greece had virtually nothing to offer going forward, but still could have claimed an unmerited victory if Giorgios Karagounis had been able to beat substitute Polish keeper Przemyslav Tytom from the penalty spot.
Poland were little better, but at least they had some penetration through the middle from Robert Lewandowski. If they can find someone to provide consistent service to the Borussia Dortmund striker they might have a chance, and home crowd advantage should help their case.
The Czech Republic were surprisingly meek in their 4-1 defeat against Russia, and their vulnerability can be exposed by the Poles in their decisive final group game on Saturday. Russia, inspired by Andrey Arshavin, will easily claim at least four more points to top this group, the weakest of the four.
Winners: Russia. Second: Poland
The “group of death” (every tournament has to have one) has produced the biggest shock so far with Denmark’s 1-0 victory over the Netherlands.
Although they created and spurned plenty of goalscoring chances, I felt the Dutch were too negative in their approach against Denmark. Not just because they selected two defensive midfielders — plenty of teams do that — but also because of the lack of attacking support provided by the full-backs Gregory van der Wiel and Jetro Willems.
Having said that, the Netherlands created more than enough chances to win and don’t need to improve too much to do enough in their remaining games — they just need to find some composure in front of goal, especially the surprisingly erratic Robin van Persie.
Despite the victory, Denmark’s passage to the last eight is by no means secured because they have tough games to come against Germany and Portugal, and this group is the toughest to predict because every game could quite easily go either way.
With three points under their belts, Germany will be capable of going through from here, but Portugal need to find a way of releasing the shackles from Cristiano Ronaldo if they are to progress. They were solid enough against Germany, but that very solidity created problems because it allowed insufficient freedom of movement for Ronaldo, who was isolated on the left wing for much of the game.
So who’s going through? Germany will be joined by the Netherlands, who can recover from their loss to pick up four points (victory against Portugal; draw against Germany) and sneak through ahead of Denmark on goal difference.
Winners: Germany. Second: Netherlands
What have the Republic of Ireland done to upset the footballing gods? Denied a place in the 2010 World Cup finals by the Hand of Henry, they were terribly unlucky in Sunday’s 3-1 loss against Croatia.
All three Croatian goals contained an element of fortune: a strange deflection diverted the ball into the path of Mario Mandzukic for an unconventional headed opener; Nikici Jelavic should have been flagged offside before netting the second, and Mandzukic’s header hit the post before rebounding off the helpless Shay Given and into the net for the third goal. The Irish were also denied a clear penalty when Robbie Keane was brought down in the box.
With Italy and Spain to come, their task is nearly impossible now — but you can be certain that Giovanni Trapattoni’s hard-working team will not make it easy for their upcoming opponents. Don’t rule out their chances of nicking a point or more from one of those two games, especially when they face Trap’s native Italy.
Although fortune was on their side, Croatia were much the better team against Ireland and I fancy them to cause an upset in this group. I think they can hold the Italians, who might struggle to get past Ireland, thereby taking Slaven Bilic’s men into the quarters with four points against Italy’s three.
Italy did play well against Spain, but that was an occasion perfectly suited to their defence-first mentality. When the onus is on the Italians to attack, as it will be against Croatia and Ireland, they might not feel so comfortable.
Spain were at times dazzling in Sunday’s entertaining 1-1 draw with Italy, but they desperately need to find someone to finish their chances. They mirrored Barcelona’s 4-6-0 formation, with Cesc Fabregas in the “false nine” role, but there’s one big problem: Barca have got Lionel Messi; Spain haven’t.
Fernando Torres got into some great positions after appearing as a substitute but his two-year long woes in front of goal continued, so it might be the time for Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo to step up.
Winners: Spain. Second: Croatia
Ukraine produced an energetic performance, full of vigour and attacking intent, to record a deserved 2-1 victory over Sweden last night thanks to two headed goals from classy veteran Andriy Shevchenko. The win should give the co-hosts enough momentum to see them through the next two games, and I certainly think they’re good enough to beat England in their final game if they need to — especially with fervent home backing in Kiev.
Sweden are clearly heavily reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was in a typically petulant mood against Ukraine. Although the AC Milan ace did register on the scoresheet and produced some delicious touches, I don’t think the Swedes possess enough overall quality to win either of their next two games.
Yesterday’s earlier meeting between England and France was a tepid affair, with Roy Hodgson’s new charges creating next to nothing in attack but defending resolutely against a surprisingly blunt French attack. How predictable.
France were the only team that looked remotely capable of scoring a winner in the second half, and the quality of Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery will surely produce the goods at some point in the next two games.
England’s meeting with Sweden later this week now becomes a must-win game for both sides — and I expect it to be drawn, clearing the way for both France and Ukraine to progress.
Winners: Ukraine. Second: France
So there we have it: eight teams for the next stage. If I’m right (I know, big “if”), we’ll be watching the following quarter-finals: Russia vs Netherlands; Germany vs Poland; Spain vs France; Ukraine vs Croatia. Let’s see!
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.