More from Euro expert Zack Goldman
So? How’d you like that, then?
So far, Euro 2012 has kept us on the edge of our seats with a thrilling group stage that seemed to have everything. Replete with great goals (and lots of them – 2.5 per game), some glorious and unpredictable team performances, and controversy over Nicklas Bendtner’s underwear, the first 24 games were simply enthralling. Those who took a break from obsessively tracking the soap operas of Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres were treated to magnificent outings by some of the more unheralded footballers on the continent. The names Alan Dzagoev, Mario Mandžukić, and Michael Krohn-Dehli may not feature in the next round, but they have thrilled audiences with their industrious and determined play, which has given this tournament such a unique zest. The matches to come in Poland and Ukraine will likely feature the juggernauts of European soccer, but many of the headlines in the group stage go to an unexpected cotillion of debutantes, has-beens, and never-weres from the continent’s footballing periphery.
Yes, it had everything—everything, that is, except a clear frontrunner. Pre-tournament favorites Germany looked impressive, yes, and Spain acquitted themselves well by picking up 7 points en route to the quarterfinals, but this tournament, like so many past editions of the Euros, has looked a lot like freshman year of college. Some might walk taller than others or come in with better CV’s, but everyone eventually looks vulnerable at one point or another. Even you, with your croakies and Vineyard Vines polos, Germany.
But, as we’ve learned from international competition so many times before (especially you, Euro 2008, when you let that Arshavin kid play), prior form goes out the window now. Everyone is only three wins away from a European Championship (yes, even you, England).
We’re onto the quarterfinals. Let’s break down today’s matchup, Czech Republic v. Portugal.
CZECH REPUBLIC (Group A winners) v. PORTUGAL (Group B runners-up)
What we learned from the group stage.
After collapsing to Russia 4-1, the Czechs recovered remarkably to win Group A (with a negative goal difference) and now face Portugal in the quarterfinals. The story of the group stage for the Czech Republic is a classic tale of learning from your mistakes and making adjustments on the fly. After being broken down again and again by counterattacks against the Russians, manager Michal Bilek restructured the center of the park by introducing holding midfielder Tomas Hubschman as a starter, thereby freeing up Jaroslav Plasil to take the reigns as a deep-lying playmaker and allowing Tomas Rosicky to move more freely as the engine of the attack. Unencumbered defensively, the advanced midfielders also drew focus away from the wings, where the Czech Republic attacked with gusto, particularly against the Greeks. Between the marauding runs of right back Theodor Gebre-Selassie and the purposeful, darting off-the-ball movement of wingers Petr Jiracek (who was moved out wide from a more central role against Russia) and Vaclav Pilar, the Czechs now look much more dynamic going forward than they did early on in the tournament. They break up attacks well, get forward in numbers, and already have a few goals under their belt that exemplify their tremendous ability to take chances when they find a yard of space in the box. Rosicky’s fitness is still up in the air—and he would be a huge boost to any hopes they have of progressing to the semifinals—but Czech fans can at least rest easy knowing that they’ve made some magnificent adjustments coming into this match. There’s no doubt that this team is still lucky to be in this tournament (they could have conceded a few more in each of their three group stage matches), but they look more steely in the midfield, more deliberate on the counterattack, and are legitimately frightening in the final third with brilliant movement down the wings, incisive through-balls, and clinical finishing.
Unlike Michal Bilek, Portugal manager Paulo Bento was less intent on fixing his side’s glaring weaknesses that were on display throughout the group stage. The Portuguese gaffer chose to play to his team’s strengths, gambling on their stellar attacking play and ultimately coming away with six points and the second spot in the Group of Death. On the face of things, Portugal’s results sound pretty good—a narrow 1-0 loss to Germany, defeating Denmark, 3-2, in their next match, and then dispatching Holland, 2-1. These results, however, belie the tactical problems of Bento’s system. For all of the talk about the manager’s emphasis on defensive solidarity with his midfield trio, his team still, at the same time, gives up an awful lot of space on the wings. Ronaldo’s clear indifference toward his defensive duties—as emphasized best in the game against Denmark in which Lars Jacobsen and Dennis Rommedahl practically skipped carefree down Ronnie’s flank—cannot continue to stand, especially against a side like the Czechs, who rely on being able to dart down the channels. Worse yet, Ronaldo lines up in front of Fábio Coentrão, who, despite getting forward brilliantly in this tournament, is often guilty of neglecting his rearguard responsibilities in favor of getting into the attack.
Let’s not get it twisted, though—Portugal have been very good in this tournament and their attack has been nothing short of sublime in the past 180 minutes. They’ve had five goals from four different scorers and have displayed a cutting edge in the box against both Denmark and Holland that we haven’t seen from them in some time. They are consistently dangerous on set-pieces, especially when Pepe gets forward, and they have looked fantastic on the counter, which is led by the tremendous ball-winning and distribution of Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, and João Moutinho. The fireworks for Portugal may happen on the wings, but if there’s anywhere Bento, himself a former holding midfielder, has made a tactical difference in the team for this tournament, it really is here. Though Ronaldo struggled to hit the target in his first two matches (ineffectual against Germany, wasteful against Denmark), his brace against Holland may have marked his resurgence. And when the front three are all clicking together, there’s no telling what Portugal can do.
The bottom line is that Portugal really is a contender to make a deep run in this tournament—blessed with tremendous attacking talent and seemingly able to create dangerous chances in the attacking third at will. But, it is also clear that they are a squad that remains plagued by defensive insecurity on the flanks that has not yet been addressed from a managerial standpoint. They can be proud of navigating through Group B and are likely not done yet, but are they a team that can win this tournament? Not yet. Not by playing like this.
Expectations for the match in three sentences.
The Czechs may decide to play deeper and more conservatively than they have so far in this tournament, but I still expect both sides will look to spring their attack on the counter and make use of the space afforded to them on the wings. Watch for Gebre-Selassie burning down one flank and Coentrão to lay siege down the other. The key matchup will be whoever marks Ronaldo—and I’m putting my money on David Limbersky starting at left back (note: The Independent has reported the following quote from the Czech defender regarding his potential assignment: “’My girlfriend told me I would become a real footballer when I manage to face Ronaldo,’ the 28-year-old said. ‘She’s crazy about him.’”
Portugal top the Czechs in an open game. I really don’t like making scoreline predictions, but why not… Portugal 3-1 Czech Republic. (I’m going to look really stupid when this is 0-0 for 120 minutes).