Euro 2012 Semi-Finals Preview
Portugal v Spain
Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Wednesday 27th June 2012
While he often blurs the line between supreme self-confidence and outright arrogance, it is nevertheless fortunate for Cristiano Ronaldo that he is no shrinking violet when it comes to backing himself.
The Real Madrid man is of course well used to carrying the hopes of a nation upon his shoulders, but in the build-up to Wednesday’s Semi-Final clash between Portugal and Spain, the level of expectation surrounding him has gone completely off the scale.
And little wonder given the level of his individual performance in the Quarter-Final victory over CzechRepublic.
In addition to bagging his side’s late winner with a superb diving header, he hit the post twice, carved out a hatful of gilt-edged chances for his colleagues and generally tormented the Czech side to such an extent that some of their defenders may have needed counselling on the flight back to Prague.
Given that the rest of the Portuguese side is competent without being brilliant, it was vital for the Seleccao that Ronaldo fired if they were to progress from Group B and after a slow start against Denmark, the former Manchester United man has taken flight in spectacular style.
Already a red-hot favourite to be named player of the tournament, UEFA would surely consider presenting him with the award on Wednesday if he managed to inspire his side to an upset victory over Spain.
And such a result is out of the question bearing in mind that Vicente del Bosque’s side have not been at their awe-inspiring best during this tournament to date.
They did make short work of France to reach the last four, but given the astonishing lack of ambition shown by Laurent Blanc’s side, that result didn’t do much to convince the doubters, of whom there are appear to be a growing number, especially within the Spanish media.
del Bosque again employed his controversial tactic of not fielding a single recognised striker against the French, preferring Cesc Fabregas to Fernando Torres and has been strongly tipped to opt for the same line-up again in Donetsk.
Spain do not appear to have any significant injury problems heading into the all-Iberian clash, although Alvaro Arbeloa, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres, Javi Martinez and Xabi Alonso are all one yellow card away from suspension.
La Roja have been keen to push their full-backs further forward during this tournament, regularly switching to a cavalier 3-4-3 formation, but given that Portugal’s key avenue of attack is down the left, right-back Arbeloa may well find his attacking opportunities severely limited on this occasion.
Ronaldo’s combination with left-back Fabio Coentrao has been electrifyingly successful for the Portuguese in recent games and Arbeloa will undoubtedly need some assistance from Alonso and Sergio Busquets in order to keep the dynamic duo at bay.
Indeed, it is Portugal’s width and pace that represents their best chance of dumping their neighbours out of the competition and securing their second Euro Final appearance in the process.
If they allow Spain to slow the tempo and narrow the field, they will find themselves being passed to death as so many other teams have in the past, but if they can be quick in transition and pull either Alonso or Busquets out of the middle, they could be in business.
What may well prove Portugal’s Achilles heel yet again, however, is their lack of a predatory central striker. Hugo Almeida will fill that role on Wednesday in the absence of Helder Postiga who has been ruled out by a thigh injury, but he too seems unlikely to be able to take full advantage of the wonderful service provided by both Ronaldo and Nani.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento has claimed he will not be making any significant alterations to his side in terms of personnel or approach in order to counter Spain’s strengths and his counterpart, del Bosque, has insisted that he intends to take the same bullish approach, teeing up what could be a feisty clash between two sides who haven’t always seen eye to eye in the past.
Spain, of course, have no shortage of big-game experience, but Portugal have now reached the Semi-Final stage at three of their last four Euro appearances and as the underdogs, have nothing to lose.
They have also been beaten only twice in the last twelve meetings between the two sides dating back to the mid-60s and claimed a thumping 4-0 friendly victory over their old foes as recently as November 2010.
There is no doubt that this Spain side has its vulnerabilities and can be beaten, but it is probably asking too much of Ronaldo to expect him to do it single-handed. The likes of Nani, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles have to produce world class performances if Portugal are to prevail, Almeida needs to find his shooting boots and the impressive Rui Patricio will again be required to provide some heroics in goal.
The Seleccao also need to start more brightly than they have in several of their previous tournament games, because if they concede early, no side is better at defending a lead than Spain.
Ronaldo’s stunning form, along with their overall pace, organisation and team spirit means that Portugal cannot be discounted altogether, but Spain still have room for improvement and should just get over the line.
Prediction: Portugal 1-2 Spain
Germany v Italy
National Stadium, Warsaw
Thursday 28th June 2012
Without wishing to over-emphasise the relevance of historical records, it does seem remarkable that none of the fabulous German and West German sides of the past have ever got the better of the Azzurri in a competitive international.
So Joachim Loew’s side will have to make history if they are to reach their seventh Euro Final and judging by the form that they have shown in the tournament to date, they are very capable of doing just that.
While Spain have been effective but slightly dull to watch, the freewheeling Germans have been a delight, tearing sides apart with their pace and attacking movement and winning over plenty of neutrals in the process.
Loew has also proven his worth as a coach, bravely rotating his squad to great effect even in the white-heat of a knockout tournament and consequently ensuring that his charges are fresh, sharp and ready to perform at their best when it really counts.
Predicting the German line-up for this game is therefore no easy task, although Lars Bender may well get the nod to start at right-back in place of Jerome Boateng who turned in another shaky performance in the Quarter-Final win over Greece, Thomas Muller should come back into the starting line-up along with Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose may just retain his position up front ahead of Mario Gomez.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, meanwhile, is expected to shake off a nagging ankle injury in time to take his place alongside Sami Khedira in a central midfield combination that is the cornerstone of the German set-up.
Another positive for Loew and co has been the return to form of Mesut Ozil.
The diminutive Real Madrid man looked decidedly off-colour during the group phase, but burst into life with a man-of-the-match display against Greece and will ask plenty of questions of the Italian defence with his pace, mobility and sublime close skills.
Indeed, the Germans will feel that the key to downing Italy will be to play at a high tempo as this is not an Azzurri side overflowing with pace, especially in midfield.
The men in white should be able to press high up the field without worrying too much about being stung on the counter and that could mean Italy find it very hard to settle into any kind of rhythm themselves.
So how can Cesare Prandelli’s men defy the odds and maintain their status as Germany’s bogey side?
In two words, Andrea Pirlo.
He may not be as flamboyant as Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Juventus midfielder is every bit as vital to the Italian cause as the Real Madrid man is to that of Portugal and if Germany fail to shut him down, he is very capable of orchestrating a boilover.
Peerless, imperious, magnificent; you can pick your adjective to describe the 33-year-old’s display against England and although it could be argued that he was given far too much time and space in which to weave his magic during that victory over the Three Lions, he also shone against Spain in the opening group game and during the first-half of the draw with Croatia.
Unfortunately for Prandelli’s side, too many of their other players fall some way short of Pirlo’s high standards and while there is no faulting their work ethic or level of commitment, that lack of overall quality will surely be exposed by the Germans.
Tactically, it will be fascinating to see if Prandelli reverts to the old-style 3-5-2 formation that proved effective against Spain and Croatia, or sticks with the 4-1-3-2 approach that accounted for Ireland and England.
Given Germany’s attacking strengths, he may well plump for the former, although asking midfielder Daniele De Rossi to reprise his makeshift sweeper role against an attack boasting the likes of Klose, Mueller and Ozil might be courting disaster.
Indeed De Rossi may not even be fully fit come Thursday evening having developed a problem with his sciatic nerve which has required intensive treatment all week.
Prandelli also has a decision to make up front following his charges’ shockingly wasteful display against England. It may have been a positive that the Azzurri created no fewer than 35 goalscoring opportunities, but failing to take any of them was unforgiveable.
Italy won’t be afforded anywhere near as many chances by the Germans as they were by England and their coach must therefore decide whether to stick with Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano in the hope that they will come good, or reintroduce Antonio Di Natale, or even throw in a wildcard in the form of either Sebastian Giovinco or Fabio Borini.
Italy’s best display of the tournament to date undoubtedly came in their 1-1 draw with Spain and if they can produce a repeat performance, they could just squeeze through to the Final. Germany have kept only four clean sheets in their last nineteen Euro Finals games and rely on a formidable phalanx of attacking talent to cover the fact that they are not especially convincing at the back.
If the Azzurri can get at them, the German back four could creak, but on the evidence so far, Prandelli’s side may not have it in them to apply that kind of pressure.
It could be argued that Italy have already over-achieved by reaching the last four with what is by no means a formidable player group and historical precedents notwithstanding, it’s very hard to see them going any further.
Prediction: Germany 1-0 Italy1,118 views