Monday, June 23, 2008

The Final Four

After watching all four of the quarterfinal games, I was consistently reminded why this is the greatest game on earth. Turkey, Russia, Spain, and Germany are left, and with only two wins to go, any of these teams could become the champions of Europe for the next 4 years. Random thoughts from the tournament so far the "group of death" has no teams in the semifinals........Turkey has had three straight come from behind victories, obviously they are scared to death of what Fatih Terim will do to them if they lose. ............ neither del piero nor luca toni took a pk yesterday; these were the top scorers in each of their leagues and both of them choked big time,........ does anyone else think the yellow card rule is ridiculous and should be re-reformatted where all cards are wiped clean after the group stage?........ Guus Hiddink is the best manager in the world right now end of story........................all future co-hosted tournaments should only get one guaranteed bid which will be hereby known as the Austria rule (sorry Poland and Ukraine)..............the Dutch and Portuguese will never be able to win a major tournament..............does anyone know the odds of Henrik Larsson coming out of international retirement for the 4th time for South Africa 2010?............ I am now officially pulling for a Russia-Turkey final

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Games 22 & 23: In Guus we Trust

The last day of group play did not disappoint, though the Spain vs. Greece game was a non-issue, the Sweden vs. Russia game took center stage. The Swedes seemed to still be stinging from their last minute defeat to Spain on Saturday, and their age began to become in issue during their third high intensity match. The energy, fearlessness, and momentum that Russia had built up, combined with the tactical and technical brilliance of Guus Hiddink saw them completely dominate Sweden for 90 minutes, and the 2-0 result probably should have been 4 or 5-0 with the amount of chances their side enjoyed. In the 24th minute Roman Pavluchenko opened up the scoring netting a square pass from Sergei Semak past Isaksson; 1-0 Russia. The rest of the first half was fairly even with both sides exchanging chances, but the score remained the same going into halftime. After what had to be an inspiring talk from Hiddink at the half, Russia came out hard and fast for the final 45 minutes, and their work was rewarded in the 50th minute with a great transition goal from the left channel and Andrei Arshavin in his first game back from suspension, made a sliding shot into the lower corner past a diving Isaksson, giving the Russians a 2-0 lead. This was all that Russia needed, as they created many more chances against Sweden, while the Swedes threw everyone forward. Hiddink and his Russians will now take on his native Holland in their quarterfinal match this Saturday.

Games 19-21: Group Stage Part 3

Monday and Tuesday's matches saw Groups B and C wrap up their respective opening rounds with some of the tournament favorites needing a result to continue their tournament. Poland was unable to get a result against a well-rested Croatia side, who rested many of their starters having already locked up the group. Ivan Klasnic scored the only goal of the match in the 52nd minute off after picking off a pass and beating Artur Boruc. Croatia was able to comfortably take all nine points from the group stage, and they now await a Turkish side minus goalkeeper Volkun Demirel (who was red-carded on Sunday) in Friday's quarterfinal match up.

Meanwhile the Germans found themselves in a situation where they must get a result against Austria to assure themselves a place in the quarter-finals. On paper this match looked as though it should have been over before it started, as the star-studded Germans took on the 82nd ranked team in the world. Both sides opened the match cautiously, and though Germany had more possession and more shots than the co-hosts, they were unable to ever put the match away. Right before half-time both managers were sent to the stands by referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez for what turned out to be "constant bickering", in a decision that was obviously made to ensure the referee was the center of attention. As play resumed right before the half Michael Ballack opened up the scoring with a cracking goal into the upper 90. This would turn out to be the only goal of the match, as Germany was able to preserve their lead and take 2nd place in Group B. The Germans will meet Portugal in the opening quarterfinal fixture on Thursday.

On the most important day for the so called group of death was Tuesday; in a day full of what-if scenario, the only sure thing was that Holland was through as the group winners and the other three sides were all jockeying for second place. Romania had the most straight forward route to the quarters; win/draw and your in, meanwhile Italy and France both needed a victory for themselves and for Holland to ensure a pass into the final 8. The two matches started simultaneously, and after much debate and speculation, Holland had started 9 different players from their original starting 11, giving rest to their first team, and hope to a desperate Romanian side. The lineups in the Italy-France match-up saw many changes on both sides as well, with both squads desperatley needing three points. France really hurt themselves in the 24th minute when Eric Abidal brought down Luca Toni in the box, earning him a red card and awarding Italy a PK which Andrea Pirlo slammed home to give Italy an early 1-0, and just as importantly allowing them to play 11-10 for the reaming 65 minutes. Italy was able to take a 1-0 lead into halftime, meanwhile the score remained 0-0 in Holland-Romania as they headed into the dressing room. 9 minutes out of the half, the deadlock was broken when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slotted home a cross from Ibrahim Afellay. When news of the goal spread to the Italian fans, the stadium erupted with joy. Just moments later in the 62nd minute Danielle De Rossi's free kick ricocheted off Thierry Henry's toe and sailed into an empty goal with keeper Gregory Coupet diving in the original direction of the ball. The Italians now had a commanding 2-0 lead, and the French were never able to recover. In the 87th minute Robin Van Persie sealed the fate of group C, putting Holland up 2-0 over Romania. Both matches ended 2-0, and the Italians were ecstatic, while Romania and France were dejected being sent home early. Holland will now play the winner of Russia/Sweden in their quarterfinal match on Saturday, while Italy will take on Spain on Sunday. What a tournament!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Games 15-18: Wacky Weekend

Spain's electric finish in Saturday's early match set the tone for a weekend of drama at the European Championships. With David Villa's 90th minute clincher Spain was basically assured a pass into the quarter finals, and Sweden was absolutely shocked to have let in such a late goal, the defense is to be blamed for that meltdown.

The late game on Saturday offered a little less in the way of drama, but it was still a close match with Russia and Greece each needing a win to keep their tournaments alive. Greece never really looked too dangerous, and Russia was able to protect their 1-o lead after a Konstatin Zurianov goal in the 33rd minute. Greece crashed out of the tournament without scoring a goal in their opening two matches, the defending European champions are the first team to lose their opening matches after winning the previous championship, and the Greek side was surely the poorest performer we've seen so far. Russia controls their own destiny in their final match against Sweden, win and they're through to the quarters.

Sunday marked the beginning of the end for half the field, the 3rd round of the group stage kicked off with a bang, with matches being played simultaneously to avoid any chance of thrown or fixed games (see Italian soccer for further explanation). The Portugal-Switzerland match was a throw away game for both sides since Portugal had already won the group, and Switzerland were already eliminated. The Swiss were able to beat a Portugal side who was resting 8 of their 11 starters from the first two matches 2-0, giving their home fans a chance to exit on a somewhat positive note.

While the Portuguese-Swiss match was rather dull and had no direct impact on the tournament, the Turkey-Czech Republic game was a winner-take-all, drama-filled, 90 minutes of shear brilliance, action packed event. The Turks have now been involved in the two best games of the tournament, even though in their last two matches they looked to be defeated and left for dead. For the first hour of the match the Czech Republic looked well on their way to the next round, Jan Koller had scored in the 34th minute, and looked confident and dangerous the entire match. Osasuna midfielder Jaroslav Plasil looked to have put the final nail in the Turks coffin in the 63rd minute putting the Czechs up 2-0 with under 30 minutes to play. In the 75th minute Arda Turan breathed new life into Turkey knocking home a cross from Sabri and past a helpless Petr Cech. Then in the 87th minute the unthinkable happened, on a routine, unpressured cross from out wide, Petr Cech jumped and the ball sailed through his hand into the path of an unmarked and partially flabbergasted Nihat Karvachi, who easily tapped the equalizer into the back of the net, and the entire city of Geneva erupted with disbelief and pure joy depending on what color kit you were supporting. The top goalkeeper in the world just allowed the softest goal of the tournament past him, and it looked as though we'd see a Euro championship first, a PK shoot-out to break the draw. The Turks continued to push on as the Czechs were still in shock of the last goal, and Nihat Karvachi beat the offside trap and scored the game-winner in ultimate style bending in a perfect strike into the upper 90, in the 90th minute of the match.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Game 14: Brilliant Orange

Outside of about 45 seconds after France scored their first goal to get back in the match, Holland continued to play the best soccer of any side in this tournament, bar none. Though France played better than their opening snooze fest against Romania, they were no match for the Netherlands beautiful, attacking, and explosive soccer. Dirk Kuyt opened up the scoring early in the 9th minute with a powerful header from a well struck Giovanni Van Bronckhorst corner kick, and the Dutch never looked back. France was able to stay in the match throughout the first half, and Edwin Van der Sar came up with some big stops to preserve the 1-0 lead. Out of the half the Dutch began to lay back a little bit, and protect their lead, however France turned up the pressure, and Marco van Basten responded by bringing a fully fit Arjen Robben, and Robin Van Perisie on to provide more offense. Van Basten's efforts were quickly rewarded as Robben took an excellent pass from Van Nistelrooy and streaked down the left flank crossing a low ball into Van Persie who slammed it off of French keeper Gregory Coupet and into the back of the net. To their credit, the French continued pressing, and Thierry Henry deflected a pass from Willy Sagnol into the side netting, giving Les Bleus their first goal of the tournament. This score line lasted all of 45 seconds when Arjen Robben made another streaking run down the left flank, beating Lilian Thuram and roofing a shot over Coupet to ignite the Dutch supporters, and put the game away for Holland. Just as it looked like the game would end 3-1, Wesley Sneijder took a pass from Van Persie, spun around and chipped Coupet, hit the bottom of the cross bar and officially ended the beating. Holland secured the group of death's top position and now has the luxury of being able to rest their players in the final match against Romania next Tuesday.

Game 13: A tale of Two Keepers

Another exciting match took place today when Italy and Romania squared off in Zurich in the 2nd round of matches for Group C. The match got off to a cracking start with Italy dominating the first 12 minutes, barely missing a few early corner kick opportunities. It seemed like nothing would fall for the Azzuri even though they controlled most of the first half. Romania however would create many dangerous chance, picking the proper moments to counter attack. Just before the half Luca Toni looked to have headed home Italy's first goal of the tournament, only to have it questionably disallowed by a shaky offside call. Coming out of the dressing room both sides exchange blows, but Adrian Mutu capitalized off a horrible decision by Zambrotta to half-heartedly head a ball back to Buffon. The Italians struck back quickly when Christian Panucci slammed home the equalizer even the score just 60 seconds after the Mutu goal. The Italians and Romanians continued to have their chances, and all of a sudden in the 80th minute, Panucci gets whistled for an even harsher penalty then yesterday's decision against the Poles. It looks like the Italians got hosed by the ref, but Gianluigi Buffon is able to make a tremendous save, keeping Mutu's PK out of the net, and giving Italy at least a chance to stay alive in the tournament. The match ends in a draw, and both sides are exhausted. The Romanians played well, but were bailed out by excellent goalkeeping from Lobont. Donadoni had a much better starting XI, seeing five changes from the opening debacle against the Dutch. Grosso, Camoranesi, De Rossi, and Del Piero all played excellent for the Italians, and the Italians had much better flow in the midfield with Gattuso and Ambrosini on the bench in favor of a more attacking lineup. The Italians must continue to build on their improvements today, and soundly beat the French on Tuesday in order to make it into the final 8.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Game 12: Phantom PK and the wisdom of Rob Stone

Before we get into the analysis of the Poland-Austria match lets get one thing straight; Rob Stone is a tool. Everything that is bad about American soccer is embodied by this arrogant, cocky, and clueless talking head. In between matches Stone was honestly trying to tell Andy Gray (a professional player at the lop European level in the 70's and 80's) that European clubs don't understand the "harsh atmospheres" that the US Men's National Team has to visit during World Cup qualifying. In reference to such teams as Canada, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvadore, and other island nations, Rob Stone is really trying to make the point that the US has just as difficult if not a more difficult road to qualify for 2010 South Africa.

Back to Vienna, where outside of the first 10 minutes Poland had thoroughly dominated the match against Austria, looking to be on their way to secure a victory and a vital 3 points going into their last match against Croatia, until the 92nd minute when English referee Howard Webb gives the softest PK I've ever seen in at an international level, gift wrapping a draw for Austria that they did not deserve. Artur Boruc was simply magnificent all game stopping 3 point blank shots inside the first 10 minutes, Poland then settled into the game and dominated the next 70 minutes. Polish naturalized striker Guerrero was Poland's best field player by a long shot, consistently creating danger in the Austrian defensive 1/3 and his efforts we rewarded with a tap-in goal in the 30th minute. With the successfully converted penalty by the tournament's oldest player Ivica Vastic, a draw keeps the hopes of the co-hosts alive going into game 3, while sealing the #1 group position into the quarter finals.