“Cesc, you take the second one”, “Nope, I’m going last.”
That’s the conversation the Spanish assistant coach had with Cesc Fabregas and the rest of the Spanish national team when they were deciding who should take the penalties in the shootout against Portugal in the semi finals of the European Championships. Fabregas later said that he’d had a premonition that afternoon, that the game would go to penalties and that he would take the winning penalty, just as he did against Italy 4 years ago when Spain went into the semi-finals of Euro 2008. If he was a cricketer, he would have been under scrutiny for spot fixing by the ICC while the PCB would be drafting him into the side to mentor their youngsters. But that luckily is not the case. He is a fooballer, and a pretty good one too.
Rewind to 2 hours earlier and Portugal were getting ready for their biggest night since the Euro 2004 finals at home when they lost to Greece. This was their shot, at another shot at the title. Led by the rich, handsome and skillful, Cristiano Ronaldo (his words, not mine) and ten other fellows who nobody really remembers (except maybe Raul Meireles, but only for that ghastly haircut of his). The young bloke on the sidelines in a crisp suit seemed somewhat out of place but turned out to be the 43 year old coach of the Portugese National team. Paulo Bento. They came into the game as firm second favorites and that probably really took the pressure off them. But to his credit, the youngest coach at the tournament was the most influential man on the pitch. He pulled off a tactical masterclass against the reigning World and European Champions only to undone by Fabregas’ premonition.
Portugal unsettle the Champions
Both coaches named the expected line ups with Hugo Almeida replacing the injured Helder Postiga being the only enforced change for Paulo Bento. Everyone expected Portugal to sit deep, defending on the edge of their own penalty area and try and avoid being hypnotized by the Spanish passing rhythm. On the off chance that they managed to get the ball, they would get it to Ronaldo who would bury the ball in the net and proceed to do an elaborate celebration which seems an adult version of “Twinkle twinkle little stars”. After that, back to defending while Ronaldo got a new hairstyle.
But everybody including the Spanish were surprised. Portugal came out flying and completely destroyed any notions the Spanish may have had that it was going to be another session of keep-ball. The midfield three of Veloso, Meireles and especially Joao Moutinho had an excellent game. They did not let the Spanish settle on the ball, and applied pressure high up the field. Spain, who continued to show faith in an incredibly slow Arbeloa were not prepared for it. Arbeloa to his credit, probably had his best game of the tournament though, providing more attacking width and variety to an otherwise narrow Spanish attack. On the other flank, Jordi Alba was having another incredible game providing some much needed width. However, the first half, and long periods of the second, saw the Portugese dominate the Spanish. Not in terms of possession maybe, but the space was being better controlled by them.
Extra time and Portugal tire
With the game deadlocked at 0-0, extra time was required and although there were no more goals, the relentless pressing of the Portugese meant that they almost ran out of steam by the end of regulation time. Andres Iniesta inspired the Spanish to create more chances, but ultimately it was going to be penalties that decided the match. Because Cesc had a dream.
The most telling picture of the night was Cristiano Ronaldo looking ruefully to the skies after the Fabregas penalty went in. He could be lip read saying “Injustico, injustico”. According to my in depth knowledge of the Portugese language, I can confirm, he was saying, “Injustice, injustice”. That probably was the sentiment of the entire nation. Ronaldo had lost the shootout, without even taking his kick. The decision to give him the 5th kick, which never was, will be debated and argued upon, but ultimately, it wasn’t about the shootout at all. The camera failed to capture the real man of the moment.
Much was made of Portugal being a one man team. Of them being all about Ronaldo plus 10. But the reality was that they were Paulo Bento plus 11. This was as cohesive a performance as you will see at the Euros and full credit must be given to the man who made it happen. The real hero of this story is the director.
Italy destroy the Germans
The other semi final was a bit of a let down to be honest. We had all expected it to be a close affair but this game was over after 36 minutes when Mario Balotelli launched a rocket into the German goal. The Germans were shocked. You could hear an entire nation gasp in disbelief as the ball screamed past Manuel Neuer on its way to making it 2-0. This was not meant to happen. The Germans were the unstoppable juggernaut that was supposed to march into the final and end the Spanish dominance of European and World football. But it was not be. Although they got a goal back and really dominated the final few minutes, this always looked like the Italians’ night.
Kroos for Muller
The major change from the German camp was that Toni Kroos came in to replace his Bayern Munich team mate, Thomas Muller. It was seemingly to add more muscle to the midfield and not allow Andrea Pirlo to dominate the game like he did against the English. This was a game where Germany needed to believe in themselves and their system, but instead got caught up in the hype about Andrea Pirlo. He is a magnificent player, but changing your team just to negate a specific threat might not always be the best way to go. Besides, Pirlo had an amazing game anyway. Cesare Prandelli has been another brilliant coach who has managed to get the best out of his players in terms of individual performances as well as the overall system, but the Germans seemed to miss a trick here. Italy’s diamond was aimed at getting midfield superiority, but it sacrificed width almost completely. That is where Germany had a massive advantage. Phillip Lahm and Jerome Boateng have been two very good full backs for them at this tournament and yet their attempt to get into a fight for midfield supremacy saw them unable to capitalize on the Italian narrowness. Kroos coming into the centre meant Ozil played wide on the right but kept cutting in onto his favoured left foot. Boateng too didnt seem to exploit the space, instead occupying himself with Cassano and Marchisio. Germany somehow didn’t seem as fluid as they have in the recent past and that was probably down partially to nerves, with them being the youngest side at the tournament, but they will be gutted not to have made it atleast to the Finals. Losing to Spain is what they’re more accustomed to.
Italy – deserved finalists
Coming into this tournament, the Italians were in disarray.Hit by yet another match fixing scandal, not mention the economic crisis, they lost their last friendly before the tournament to Russia. 3-0. Cesare Prandelli took over the team after a disastrous World Cup 2010 and was faced with the daunting task of restoring the glory years. But then, these are the sort of situations that the Italians won the 2006 World Cup under. So for the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, this was nothing to be worried about. Move on.
Italy have not been at their best in this tournament, only managing to beat Ireland before the semi final against a German team who had won all their games. Prandelli however has managed to get some stellar performances from his side over the course of the competition. Daniele De Rossi played admirably at centre back in a 3 man defence in the first game against Spain. Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon, the war veterans of the team, have had great campaigns at club level together and managed to carry that form into the Euros and Mario Balotelli has, well, not made a scene. Yet.
“When a postman, delivers his mail, does he celebrate?”
This was what Balotelli said when asked why he didn’t celebrate his goal against Ireland. But even he couldn’t help himself when he scored against Germany. They were two very well taken goals and deserved a celebration. Nothing is more irritating than to see the scorer with a long face pretending to be sad. Its like when that annoying nerd in the class is crying over only getting 97% on an exam.
A lot to look forward to
The Italians comprehensively beat what looked like probably the best team in the competition and have already given the Spaniards a taste of what their capable of. Led by an astute tactician and the experience of the meanest looking goalkeeper in the business, they look to be peaking at the perfect time. But the Spaniards have faced all types of obstacles and have not conceded a goal in a competitive knock-out match since 2006. That’s a run of 9 games starting with their quarterfinal victory over Italy at Euro 2008. In Andres Iniesta, they have an incredibly skillful, not-so-handsome, and rich talisman (my words not his) who is capable of magic, and will surely have a claim to the Player of the Tournament accolade. There may not have been many goals, but Spain and Italy have been by far the most interesting teams to watch in Poland and Ukraine. The final will be a battle of wits, nerves and will probably be decided by margins as thin as Balotelli’s (horrendous) mohawk.
Going by the quality of football that we’ve seen played in the rest of this tournament, the Grand Finale should be entertaining to say the least. For people who have only just begun following the game, it has been a glorious introduction. For people who were disappointed by the slowness of the World Cup two years ago, not to mention those awfully loud vuvuzelas, this has been a refreshing change. Most of all, for everyone in love with the game, this tournament has provided a reason to stay up late watching the games, and get to work late, only to go through it all once again. Get your rest today, because tomorrow in Kiev is the final effort. After that we can all catch up on some much needed sleep. And be on time for work.