Wednesday, June 18, 2008

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!

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