All of the preliminaries are out of the way. The lighter-weight divisions have all been sent home. Only the heavyweights remain as the semifinal round of Euro 2012 commences at midweek in Poland and Ukraine.
There wasn’t much doubt which were the better sides in quarterfinal action last week, as each of the winners was a deserving one. Sides such as Greece and the Czech Republic were never going to challenge for the title, and England had too many flaws to suggest it could make a serious bid. About the only surprise of the tournament remains how ineffective the Dutch side was when losing all three of its matches in the Group of Death. Prior to the tourney, most pundits would have had Holland among the final four.
Instead, it’s another member of that so-called Group of Death, Portugal, along with fellow Group B entrant Germany and a pair of sides who campaigned in Group C, Spain and Italy, who remain. Pre-tourney prognosticators who opined that groups B and C were certainly the toughest in the competition have been proven correct.
There is plenty of history between the sides that will be getting together on Wednesday and Thursday. Following are look-aheads of those two semifinal matchups before the Sunday finale in Kiev, which we will preview this weekend.
Portugal vs. Spain (Wednesday at Donetsk)
These Iberian neighbors are very familiar with one another, as several Portuguese stars – including the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo – play their club football in Spain’s Liga. These sides also recall one another from recent battles that include a round of 16 clash at the last World Cup, won by Spain, 1-0.
That result provided a bit of revenge satisfaction for España after being dumped out of Euro 2004 by the host Portuguese in Lisbon, 1-0, a game in which a very young Ronaldo caused havoc for Spain on the flanks.
Such would figure to be the Portuguese strategy once more on Wednesday in Donetsk, although European oddsmakers suggest it will be a tough task. Spain has been made a solid betting favorite at 19/20 on the win, with the take-back on Portugal at 7/2. The draw is priced at 9/4 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff to be shown live on TV in the states on ESPN.
Keep in mind that those prices are all reflective of a 90-minute result, not inclusive of overtime or a penalty-kick shootout.
Portugal’s battle plan has been to get the ball at the feet of flying wingers Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and Nani (Man United) ever since former Sporting Lisbon coach Paolo Bento took over for Carlos Queiroz early in the qualifiers for this event back in the fall of 2010. Portugal had gotten off to a very slow start, drawing vs. Cyprus and dropping a 1-0 verdict to Cyprus, and was revolting against Queiroz.
Enter Bento, who quickly made the easy adjustment of moving Ronaldo out of an uncomfortable center-forward spot to his more natural spot on the wing, where his flair and ball tricks can be put to better use. Suddenly Portugal’s attack, now mostly deployed in a 4-3-3, began to click, and Ronaldo has put aside memories of his ineffective World Cup 2010 effort in South Africa with three goals in the past two matches, including the winner vs. the Czechs in last Thursday’s first quarterfinal.
The challenge for Portugal will be to win enough possession vs. Spain to give Ronaldo and Nani a chance to make things happen. Much easier said than done.
Spain’s possession game threatens to dominate yet another international tournament after Saturday’s confident 2-0 win over a dangerous French side. Moreover, La Furia Roja is finding different scoring heroes, as Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres, Jesus Navas and Xabi Alonso have all taken turns scoring goals at the Euros.
Thus, what seemed to be manager Vicente del Bosque’s biggest concern, finding an appropriate scoring source in the absence of Barcelona’s injured David Villa, has not been an issue at the Euros. Moreover, it seems to have motivated Spain to probe more from the flanks rather than its normal tendency to simply pass foes into submission and break through the middle of the defense. Sevilla’s Navas, Valencia’s Jordi Alba and Barcelona’s Pedro have all proven they can attack effectively from the wings.
Indeed, Alba’s circling route into the box and assist to Xabi Alonso vs. France created arguably the goal of the tournament thus far.
Moreover, Spain’s possession game makes it difficult to test top-flight Real Madrid GK Iker Casillas, who not only has been in goal for the last decade for La Seleccion but also has Champs League, Euro and World Cup titles already under his belt at the still relatively-young (for a goalie) age of 30.
Also consider that Spain and Casillas have kept a remarkable eight consecutive clean sheets in knockout round play dating to Euro 2008. As long as Ronaldo can be somewhat neutralized (and his Real Madrid teammate Sergio Ramos will likely be the defender tasked to do so), we would be very surprised if España doesn’t advance to the finale.
Germany vs. Italy (Thursday at Warsaw)
For Germany, this match marks a chance for revenge on an Italian side that scored a heart-stopping 2-0 overtime win at the semifinal stage of World Cup 2006, denying the Germans, then coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, a chance to play for the title as the home team in Berlin. Don’t let that 2-0 scoreline fool you, either, as the match was level with just a few minutes to play before the Azzurri managed a late breakthrough.
Of course, those with longer memories in Germany might still be bitter about the 3-1 loss in the 1982 World Cup final at Madrid to a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy. They also might recall a 4-3 overtime loss at the semifinal stage of World Cup 1970 in Mexico, when a heroic effort by Gerd “Der Bomber” Muller was snuffed out by an opportunistic Italian side in a crackling final 30 minutes after regulation ended level at 1-1.
Of course, in the end it didn’t help Italy, which was routed by Pele, Jairzinho and the great Brazilian side in the 1970 finale at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, 4-1, but we digress.
European oddsmakers believe that Germany can gain revenge on Thursday at Warsaw, with Jogi Low’s team priced at 10/11 on the win. The take-back on an Italy win is a tempting 7/2, with the 90-minute draw priced at 12/5 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff to be televised live in the states on ESPN.
Of course, this is a different and arguably better Germany side than the one that reached the 2006 World Cup semis. Conversely, few believe this addition of the Azzurri is at the level of the 2006 championship side.
Italy does have some injury concerns heading into the semifinal, as all from among midfielder Daniele de Rossi (Roma) and defenders Giorgio Chiellini (Juve) and Ignazio Abate (AC Milan) are in races to pass fitness tests before kickoff.
Germany has lived something of a charmed life in the Euros, especially drawing beatable Greek in the quarters, but scoring balance has been excellent for Low’s side, with seven different components already notching goals, led by three from Bayern Munich’s forward Mario Gomez.
Germany’s fluid 4-2-3-1 presents several problems for Italy, especially if Real Madrid midfielder Mesut Ozil, who has labored at times to dictate tempo at the Euros, is at his inventive best.
The risk Italy must take is sending fullbacks Abate (if healthy) and Federico Balzaretti upfield to put pressure on Germany’s flanks. Given how quickly Die Mannschaft can turn around the flow and go on attack makes this is a risky proposition for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, who has hinted at taking such an aggressive approach.
Prandelli, however, has proven tactically astute at the Euros, alternately flooding the midfield in a 3-5-2 look vs. Spain and also deploying three strikers (Man City’s Mario Balotelli, AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano, and Udinese’s veteran Antonio Di Natale) when the mood strikes. Each of that trio is among the top twenty shot-takers at the Euros.
Finally, Italy has the last impenetrable wall of defense in Juventus goalie Gigi Buffon, who proved his worth once again in the quarterfinal shootout win over England.
There has been a lot worse price value in the Euros than the 7/2 win price on the Italian side in this semifinal matchup.