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Euro 2008: Before quarterfinals

A good live football match every night at a convenient viewing time. Heaven! I do not think I will ever have a chance like this again…

I have watched only a half of games after the first round of group play, but still, that’s all together 16 matches out of possible 24. Only 7 more left, which I am sure I will all see in live broadcast.

So, what does it look like at the quarterfinal stage?

My initial expectation of the Portugal-Germany semifinal was thwarted almost as soon as I stated it, via the considerable reversal of form by both Germany and Croatia in their head-to-head meeting. The former, who confidently swatted away lesser opposition in the first game, put forward a disjointed and toothless effort, while the latter, who started the tournament with barely squeaking by the supposedly weakest of all of the participants, suddenly played a well-ogranized team game. The Croats won, leaving the Germans to work extra hard for the second playoff spot in their last game against Austria; they succeeded on the strength of a single stroke of brilliance. Their reward is an earlier meet with the Portuguese.

Portugal should be slightly favored in that matchup, on account of their better overall display so far. They play a fluid and attractive game, which should seemingly prevail over Germany’s methodical approach that does not seem to be working all that well. The only knock against the Portuguese is this: It so happened that the first place in each of the four groups was decided prior to the final round; all four group winners played their second-string squads in the last game; in two cases, their opponents still had something to fight for; in three of the four games, the group winners still won the game; the only exception – Portugal, whose “reserves” lost to the already eliminated and playing for pride Swiss.

The second quarterfinal pits together Croatia and Turkey. Croatia, on a high after beating Germans, did not leave any chances to the inferior team from Poland, even when playing mostly reserves. The Turks, in the meantime, redefined the notion of “resilient”, by first beating Switzerland in the dying moments of their encounter, and then, having been outplayed by the Czech for 75 minutes and trailing 0:2, managed to score 3 goals to pull themselves through. A healthy helping of luck was on the Turkish side, epitomized by the unthinkable blunder by the Czech goalkeeper that resulted in the easiest of imaginable goals for the Turks, but you have to give the Turks their due for never seeming to give up.

Still, Croatia should prevail in this meeting.

Next, Holland meets Russia. Yes, the Russians, who started with a sorry display against the Spaniards, have already earned the award for the most improved team, if one existed. Granted, their remaining opposition was rather soft: First, the Greeks, who were, in fact, the weakest team in the tournament; then, the aging and only marginally dangerous Swedes. And, in all honesty, the Greeks had a couple of golden chances to score against Russia before the game firmly turned in favor of the Russian squad. The Russians scored only once, but could have easily scored three or four more; in any case, that was enough to keep their chances for qualification to the knockoff stage. In the decisive game against Sweden, Russia thoroughly dominated with a bright and coherent display of teamwork, scoring twice, hitting the woodwork twice more and letting five or six other opportunities slip away. The Swedes threatened only a couple of times and very unconvincingly at that. Russia deservedly took the second qualifying spot in the group, achieving this level of success at a major tournament for the first time in 20 years.

Still, they likely have no chances against Holland. The Dutch followed up their thorough dismantling of the Italians with no less thorough domination of the French. In their last game, they fielded their reserves – well, ok, it is hard to actually call them “reserves” on account of several accomplished internationals that are consigned to second-string in their squad at the moment – against a having-everything-to-play-for Romania, and still won comfortably. If I were to bet, my money to win it all would be on Holland right now.

Romania, whom I ended up seeing only once in their overly careful and uninspiring opening display against France, and Italy, whom I saw twice, walked the thin line between success and failure in high-stakes football. Only one succeeded, of course. In their face-to-face encounter, with only a couple of minutes left to play, the Romanians were on the brink of qualification: They were awarded a penalty kick in a tie game. Put it in the net, and the Italians would be out, while the French would need to beat Italy with a monumental score in their last game to catch Romania. But the Romanian’s best forward produced a middling effort from the spot, allowing the excellent Italian goalie to parry the shot. Romania still had the inside track for advancing, but their best effort was worse than that of Holland’s second team.

Italy, meanwhile, caught a lucky wind. France actually played a better football in losing to Holland 1:4 than they did drawing 0:0 with Romania. But for the game with Italy, the French reshuffled their back four, which resulted in bad defensive holes. They also lost their best player in the 7th minute of the game due to an injury. Fifteen minutes later, an Italian attack exploited the deficiencies in the French defense, resulting in a penalty kick and a dismissal of the French player who was whistled for a “last hope foul”. The French tried to be competitive being down a player, but the Italians created tons of chances, and deservedly won. Should Romania have beaten Holland, Italy’s win would be meaningless, but as it were, they advanced from the “group of death”.

Their opponents are Spain, who impressed me greatly against Russia, then beat Sweden and finally brushed aside the Greeks (with their second team in action for the latter). I did not see either of their last two games, and I am fully aware of their history of flaming out in knockoff stages, but I still favor them to beat Italy and meet the Dutch in the semis.

Four nights – four quarterfinals. I’ll tell you all about them on Monday.

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