And so to the stage when class really begins to tell. You can play for the draw and penalties, but really you have to want to win. Without that mindset, you begin with a handicap, and it’s not often that you can overcome it. The quarter finals we have just witnessed prove the point.
Let’s take them in turn, rather than lurch straightaway into angst about England. First up was Portugal against the Czech Republic. The Czechs got out of their group rather unexpectedly and clearly didn’t rate their own chances of taking on Portugal, Ronaldo and all, toe to toe. So they parked the bus and hoped for a break… or penalties. It didn’t happen. Portugal were relentless, kept their patience and eventually got the winner. Courtesy of a fine move with a resounding Ronaldo header at the end of it. Highlight of the game was a sublime piece of skill from Ronaldo just before half time: a ball coming over his shoulder, taken on his chest, a swivel away from his marker, a jabbed shot. Hit the post. It wasn’t all Ronaldo though. Portugal are solid in defence and have a strong midfield, with Moutinho to the fore. Nani sparkles out wide. They will give Spain a tough game.
Germany v Greece promised a walkover and it sort of worked out that way. The manager, Joachim Low, was sufficiently confident to leave his entire first choice front three – Gomez, Muller, Podolski – on the bench. Blimey, that looked complacent, but it wasn’t. It was audacious – and he did it because he could. The replacements – Klose, Reus and Schurrle – did the business, Klose and Reus both scoring. As ever, the Germans played fluid, fast, penetrating football, powered by that amazing midfield trio of Khedira, Schweinsteiger and the silky Ozil. 4-2 the final score, but that flattered the Greeks. They were wiped. Again, they were set up to contain, but they couldn’t. They broke well for their first goal. But there was never a doubt who was going to win this game.
Spain v France was a disappointment. In the end a fairly easy 2-0 win for the Spanish, but I expected more of France. OK, so the loss to Sweden was a surprise, but France have a lot of attacking power. They didn’t use it. The team was set up to try to negate Spain. Debuchy, the excellent right back, was pushed up to right midfield, with another right back, Reveillere (the dreamer?) behind him. All to counter Iniesta! Likewise, Malouda came in, supposedly to solidify the midfield, along with M’Vila. Result: Nasri, Ben Arfa, Menez – the exciting players – left out. Nasri had been France’s best foward in the first game. At the end of this one he was in a rage. France falling apart again. The belief just wasn’t there. Spain drain the belief of most teams and now they are being accused of being boring. Because they hold on to the ball, probe, probe, until the openings appear. No long balls to the big man. The “false nine” is in vogue. Messi at Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas sharing the duty with David Silva for Spain. They win with precision and stealth. Teams sit back and defend deep, in fear. It is the opposition who can make the games a trifle dull, not Spain.
But who will dare take them on? I have an idea…
And then England v Italy. I thought we had a decent chance. Italy hadn’t been that impressive in the group stage. But how often do we say that about Italy? They just seem to have it in their DNA to come good in the knock out stages. They were so much better than England last night, except for a little spell early on in the game. England fought hard and defended well, but they lost the midfield battle half way through the game, with Andrea Pirlo magisterial. It was the old story: going foward we just couldn’t keep possession. The urge to make the killer pass every time, or take a man on when the pass would be better. The need for speed. And just maybe, players that, this time around, just weren’t quite good enough. Rooney was off the boil – maybe suffereing from missing the first two games. Welbeck looked a little out of his depth. Ashley Young was anxious, Milner hardworking but anonymous. Too much was therefore down to Parker and Gerrard. They did their best, but ran out of steam. Stevie was being treated for cramp after 77 minutes. Terry and Lescott were heroic in central defence. Glenn Johnson covered well. And Balotelli had one of his comical games, missing a hatful for the Italians. They had around 30 shots to our 8; 64% of the possession. If we had won the penalties it would have been daylight robbery.
Aah, penalties. The old story. Quarter finals, defeat in the shoot out. But there wasn’t the same despair as usual. Not on the sofa with the can of San Miguel, anyway. We pretty much expected it… and deserved it. Italy were so much better. But the feeling is less bitter than usual for another reason, too. So often there is a real sense of underachievement. South Africa 2010 was so much like that. But this time, I think we all felt that England really had given their all, played to to the limits of their ability. They just weren’t good enough. But if a team has given its all, you stay with them.
England were alright. Roll on the World Cup qualifiers! With Jack Wilshere back from injury, bossing that midfield, hopefully.
So that leaves two intriguing semi finals. I’d expect Spain to inch past Portugal, just through sheer overall quality. But Ronaldo could win it. Will Portugal dare to attack and try to exploit the possible weaknesses in Spain’s defence? Will they, will they? My guess is that they won’t, and they’ll hope for some Ronaldo magic to steal the game. Hope I’m wrong.
And Germany should beat Italy fairly easily, really. But those crafty Italians are capable of anything… maybe Balotelli will have one of his great games. They depend a lot on Pirlo though, and I bet Khediara, or Schweinsteiger, or Podolski or Muller – or all of them – will be in his face, upsetting that easy rhythm, exploiting his aging legs. He won’t have it as easy as he did against England.
Yes, the Germany – Spain final looms. What a prospect that is. Because the Germans won’t lose their nerve, park the bus. They will go for it. Stay audacious. Try to hit Spain where it hurts. Down the flanks, behind the centre backs. They’ll play with pace and power, and accuracy. And then we will see what the Spanish boys are really made of.
Alternatively… Portugal v Italy! Ronaldo v Balotelli. Battle of the egos. Hmmm, I don’t think so.