Spain Meets France, England Battles Italy

By: Bruce Marshall | Friday, June 22, 2012

The knockout phase continues this weekend at Euro 2012 as the top finishers from Groups C and D clash in a pair of quarterfinal matchups.

Indeed, it has turned into heavyweight time at the Euros, as each of the four sides on display this weekend represent some of the real cream of the European football crop.  No surprises that these sides advanced through the group phase, although developments along the way didn’t always go according to plan.

Action continues with semifinal action next Wednesday and Thursday before the final match at Kiev’s National Stadium on Sunday, July 1.  We’ll be back early next week with previews of those matches.

For now, however, a quick look-ahead to Thursday and Friday quarterfinal action.

Spain vs. France (Saturday at Donetsk)
La Furia Roja, winners of Group C, has been waiting several years to get back at Les Bleus for a couple of especially painful defeats in international competition during the previous decade.

These sides met in a memorable Euro 2000 quarterfinal at Bruges that wasn’t decided until the final moments, when Spain’s Abelardo conned normally-reliable referee Pierluigi Collina into a spot-kick with some Oscar-worthy theatrics in the box.  Raul, however, skied his spot-kick into the seats at Jan Breydel Stadium, and France held on for a 2-1 win.

They were back at in the first knockout round at World Cup 2006 in a clash at Hanover.  Espana took the lead on 28 minutes thanks to a David Villa spot-kick, only to see Franck Ribery level things just before the half.  Some shaky work by referee Roberto Rosetti provided an opportunity for France to assume control in the late going, when strikes from Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane at the death of the match provided the final margin in a 3-1 win for Les Bleus.

Six years on, however, and European wagering outlets expect Spain to gain its revenge.  La Seleccion has been priced a solid favorite on 4/5, with the take-back on France at a hefty 4/1.  The 90-minute draw (remember, all of these prices are based upon a 90-minute result) is posted at 5/2 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, with big ESPN providing the TV coverage in the states.

Of course, there are significant differences in these sides since that last meaningful meeting in 2006.  In particular, France has been to football hell and back in the intervening years, its “Golden Generation” led by Zidane and Vieira a distant memory.

Meanwhile, Spain has emerged as the Euro and world power that Les Bleus had been a decade earlier.  Espana is on back-to-back international tourney glory, winning both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, just as France went back-to-back in 1998 (World Cup) and 2000 (Euro).

Spain did not have an easy time of it in the qualifying stage, but again displayed resilience and an ability to conspire for results when challenged.  There were indicators that manger Vicente del Bosque was able to find an acceptable frontline alternative for Villa (out with a leg injury) when Chelsea’s Fernando Torres re-emerged with a brace in the 4-0 romp past Ireland, but Torres was again indifferent in the subsequent 1-0 win over Croatia when Sevilla’s substitute winger Jesus Navas beat a Croatian off-sides trap for the winner on 88 minutes.

Indeed, Navas is emerging as an important contributor off of del Bosque’s bench, as he did when helping create Andres Iniesta’s match-winner vs. the Dutch in the 2010 World Cup final. Providing much-needed width and an ability to wreak havoc from the wings, Navas could yet emerge as Spain’s most-valuable attack component in this event.

La Furia Roja still have the ultimate equalizer in goalie non pareil Iker Casillas, working on a pair of clean sheets entering the knockout round.

Meanwhile, France flattered for only brief periods in the group phase and enters the knockout round as Group D runners-up (to England), forcing this unwanted matchup vs. Spain much earlier than manager Laurent Blanc would have hoped.

Though Les Bleus had recently recorded a 23-match unbeaten string, that momentum was dissipated in Tuesday’s disappointing 2-0 loss to an already-eliminated Swedish side.

Specifically, the French rearguard has hardly resembled the Maginot Line in the Euros, with the last line of defense looking unsettled since the opening match vs. England, and often forcing Lyon GK Hugo Lloris into scramble mode.  Milan’s pony-tailed Philippe Mexes, in particular, has looked out of sorts.

Expect Blanc to reintroduce his most-effective combinations in the Donetsk, with PSG’s Jeremy Menez and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye likely getting trhe starts in midfield.  We have to wonder, however, how the French will cope with Spain’s dizzying Xavi-Iniesta fueled possession game.  Cabaye, in particular, is not the sort to be comfy playing on his heels.

One must also wonder about France’s ball-winning capabilities, especially if utilizing Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa, who lost possession several times vs. the Swedes.

Expect Spain to control the midfield as usual, and test Lloris and the shaky defense continually.  Torres, and eventually Cesc Fabregas and/or Navas, are going to eventually find the mark and send Espana into the semifinals next Wednesday at this same Donetsk site.

England vs. Italy (Sunday at Kiev)
England, group winners?  You heard that right!

Now, however, let’s see how England performs as expectations rise. It’s no secret that Roy Hodgson’s group entered this tourney unburdened by expectation after being insanely overrated by pundits in past tourneys.

The Three Lions now get their chance in the knockout phase on Sunday at Kiev’s National Stadium against a no-nonsense Italy side that came within a whisker of pipping holders Spain for the top spot in Group C. European oddsmakers have basically listed this one as a pick ’em, with England at 7/4 on the win and the take-back on the Azzuri at 15/8.  Draw prices at 2/1 can be found for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff, to be televised in the states by big ESPN.

Mention of Hodgson, however, is significant, because it looks as if England might have stumbled into the absolute perfect manager and tactician for the national side after the dark and drab period of Fabio Capello’s regime, which ended unceremoniously earlier this year when Capello resigned his post.

Indeed, someone at the FA ought to have a lot of explaining to do after wasting a lot of time and money on the autocratic Capello the past few years. The well-traveled Hodgson knows the English game like the back of his hand and has had experience on the international front as well, as long ago as the 1994 World Cup when leading Switzerland.  That Hodgson seems a better fit than Capello for England can no longer be doubted.

It has helped to get Man U’s Wayne Rooney back from suspension, and Roo indeed scored the winning goal on 51 minutes in the decisive Group D match vs. co-host Ukraine.  Importantly, however, England had managed to conspire for goals in a variety of manners in its two previous games, scoring four times, including a wondrous set-piece against the French when Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard laid a perfect free-kick in the path of Man City’s Joleon Lescott, who scored what might have been the only goal of the Euros off on one’s nose in the 1-1 draw vs. the French.

Rooney has rapport with teammate Danny Welbeck, as Roo plays a slightly withdrawn role behind his Man U teammate.  Hodgson believes this is the best final-third attack strategy for England, as the threat of Rooney occupies opposing defenders.  In theory, Hodgson believes that could possibly open up added opportunities for Welbeck or Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.

Meanwhile, Gerrard has re-established himself as one of the best crossers in Europe.

Still, the assignment vs. Italy will not be easy for England.  Azzuri manager Cesare Prandelli has not been afraid to utilize more-aggressive lineup combinations than we are used to seeing from Italy, flooding the midfield to cope with Spain’s possession game in the opener and unafraid to introduce a pair of mercurial forwards, Milan’s Antonio Cassano and Man City’s petulant Mario Balotelli, onto the pitch at the same time.

Cassano and Balotelli rewarded Prandelli with goals in the knockout-round clinching 2-0 win over Ireland last Monday.

In the end, a slight edge in this match would have to be granted Italy and Juventus GK Gigi Buffon over English counterpart, Man City’s Joe Hart.  Although Buffon has looked a bit uneasy at times, he is off of a tremendous season for scudetto-winning Juve and has plenty of experience to call upon, including a win at the 2006 World Cup.

If this match is to come down to penalty kicks, which it might, we would rather have Buffon between the sticks than Hart.

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