Zack Goldman’s Team of the Tournament
(piece written before Euro final)
GK: Gianluigi Buffon (ITA)
In anyone’s list, this will be a toss-up between Buffon and Iker Casillas of Spain—and rightfully so, as both have convincing cases for a Best XI bid. These two keepers have been fantastic and absolutely central to their teams’ success as they march onto Kiev for the final. While Casillas has not surrendered a goal in the last 419 minutes of play (dating back to Antonio Di Natale’s goal in the 61st minute of Spain and Italy’s first meeting), he has played with a rock solid backline that has remained intact throughout the tournament. Yes, he made a brilliant point-blank save on Ivan Rakitić that likely rescued Spain from the jaws of elimination at the hands of Croatia, and his save against João Moutinho propelled the Spanish to the final. It is undeniable that Casillas has come up big when called upon—but those moments have been few and far between for the most part. Buffon, on the other hand, has, in many ways, had much more to do throughout Italy’s five matches in this tournament—and he’s done it with a defensive corps that has been constantly shuffled and played out of position. They have filled in admirably, but they owe much of their success to Buffon’s confident play, organization, and leadership from the back. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s escaped owing Pirlo a beer for saving the ball off the line against Germany. I’m picking Buffon, but I wouldn’t begrudge you to vote the other way around (wouldn’t it be nice if all elections were like that?)
Honorable mention: Iker Casillas (ESP)
LB: Jordi Alba (ESP)
As good as Spain’s center-back pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos has been, Jordi Alba has been the most impressive member of the Spanish rearguard throughout the tournament. FC Barcelona has taken notice, snapping up the young wing-back from cash-strapped Valencia for 14 million euros before the tournament has even concluded. The 23-year-old Catalonian returns to the club where he played his youth football and should be a brilliant addition to the Blaugrana backline. Tenacious in defense, skillful with the ball at his feet, and fleet-footed when getting into the attack, his bounding runs have given his opposite numbers fits in this tournament. Between this attacking threat and his ability to limit the number of dangerous crosses Spain has conceded in the tournament, Alba looks to have cemented his spot in the Spanish side for the foreseeable future.
Honorable mention: Philipp Lahm (GER)
CB: Pepe (POR)
I won’t beat around the bush here: Between his disgraceful aggression in nearly every Clasico, to his assault on Getafe captain Fernando Casquero, Pepe is undeniably one of the most unpopular footballing figures on the planet. He has, in my opinion, earned every inch of that reputation. In this tournament, however, Pepe has been nothing short of magnificent. An absolute rock at the back and a terror on set-pieces (grabbing a goal against Denmark and having several other opportunities to score, including a shot against the woodwork against Germany), Pepe has captured his best form at both ends of the pitch this summer. Even more remarkable, though, has been how different his defensive style has been in this tournament. Never a stranger to controversy and hostility, Pepe’s usual game is predicated upon physicality, getting under the opponent’s skin, and outmuscling the nearest attacking threat. While he has still defended with a great deal of power, his posture has been much more graceful this tournament. He has been fluid in possession and precise in disposession. He has been brilliant in the air and cautious in going to ground. Portugal may have surrendered four goals in Group B, but they allowed zero goals in the knockout stage of the competition, where Pepe was at his best. Many will be quick to point out that he has the second highest Castrol Rating in the tournament, but I don’t much care about that. The statistic I’m most concerned with? He committed 2 fouls in 480 minutes of play. If there was ever a statistic that says everything to me about a player reforming his game, that’s it.
Honorable mention: Mats Hummels (GER)
CB: Gerard Pique (ESP)
Pique has been marvelous, along with the rest of the Spanish defense, all tournament long. He had a bit of difficulty against Antonio Di Natale in the second half of Spain’s opening match, but that may have been for the best as he has since learned to compensate for his lack of pace with superior positioning. Pique has always been a defender who knows his strengths and plays to them remarkably well—and that has showed in the way he has stifled strikers like Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in the knockout stage. Over the past week, he has emphasized in interviews his focus on remaining ‘goal-side’ of opposing strikers and not allowing them to turn, particularly when they possess deadly pace that he cannot match. This is apt self-analysis and speaks volumes about how well Pique knows his own game and his own limitations as a center-back. He has had four excellent matches in a row heading into the final—and made his penalty against Portugal to help get Spain to Kiev. The next big assignment waiting in the wings is Mario Balotelli, who provides a whole new set of challenges. You can bet that the analytical Pique will be well-prepared for what Super Mario brings to the table, though whether he can stop him is another story.
Honorable mention: Giorgio Chiellini (ITA)
RB: Álvaro Arbeloa (ESP)
He has been criticized a bit by the Spanish press throughout the tournament, but I cannot imagine why. Incidentally, neither can his teammates. Arbeloa has been an absolute stud for Spain at the position they have consistently faced tremendous threats. He was extremely defensively responsible against Portugal, who threw Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrão forward on his side—and he got stuck in better than any player on the park. He does commit a lot of fouls, occasionally in dangerous territory, but it has been that grit and that steel that Spain has needed to survive. Like Alba, he has gotten into some dangerous positions, having some decent efforts against both Ireland and Portugal. For the most part, however, his role for Spain has been to stem the flow of attacks and keep wingers from cutting in or serving dangerous crosses into the box. I think he has been tremendous in that regard throughout this tournament.
Honorable mention: Theodor Gebre-Selassie (CZE)
MF: Andrea Pirlo (ITA)
There’s not much of a better endorsement for him being in this team than the fact that every casual soccer fan in America now knows the name ‘Andrea Pirlo’. This makes sense, though. Pirlo has had an absolutely tremendous career, but it is undeniable that he has flown under-the-radar in terms of coverage outside of Italy. He was fantastic for Juventus this year, helping the bianconeri to a 30th scudetto (er… I mean, 28th) while going undefeated in the process. He had 13 assists, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has watched him in Poland and Ukraine. His vision and service over the past month have been absolutely impeccable. He gave the Germans fits en route to the final and his impact in manager Cesare Prandelli’s system cannot be overstated. Everything runs through him going forward and he is very rightfully a Golden Ball candidate, who may very well win it regardless of Italy’s performance in the final.
Honorable mention: Steven Gerrard (ENG)
MF: Mesut Özil (GER)
It was not supposed to end like this for Özil, who many (including myself) viewed as a potential Golden Ball candidate coming into the tournament. On the back of a brilliant season for Real Madrid, Özil seemed destined for a breakout tournament and potentially a European Championship for Germany. It was not to be for Detuschland, but that doesn’t mean Özil had anything other than a fabulous month in Poland and Ukraine. Alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, he helped run the German midfield to perfection until Die Mannschaft crashed out in the semifinals against Italy. I, along with most of the German population, blame that on manager Joachim Löw’s tactical changes, but that is a story for another time. The bottom line is that Özil was the link between defense and attack consistently throughout this tournament, racked up three assists (and a late consolation goal), and earned two Man of the Match honors against Portugal and Greece. He was stupendous—and he is only 23 years young. This tournament may not have marked his ascendancy to the throne in Europe, but it definitely did something of the sort in Germany. While Philipp Lahm will almost certainly be around in Brazil, Mesut will be the leader of this team in 2014. Bank on it.
Honorable mention: Bastian Schweinsteiger (GER)
The headlines in Portugal were grabbed by Cristiano Ronaldo throughout this tournament—and rightfully so. But, hanging in the background, silently pulling all the strings is Art Garfunkel… I mean, João Moutinho. With everyone’s eyes trained on Ronaldo and Nani, it was Moutinho who, in many ways, made Portugal the attacking dynamo they became in this tournament. His passing was something to behold—not just his balls in behind the backline, which resulted in several goals throughout the tournament including both against Holland—but also the way in which he was able to keep possession in tight spots in the middle of the field. He built a sense of fluency and fluidity into the Portuguese attack that has been sorely missed in the past. Though he missed a crucial penalty against Spain that sent Portugal packing, the national team owes its success in this tournament to him in many ways. That counter-attacking threat and use of the wings that Portugal has so desired to have in the past finally came into its own in this tournament—and that’s because of Moutinho’s crisp and imaginative passing. In my mind, his performances in every match were positive. Don’t expect him to be at Porto for much longer.
Honorable mention: David Silva (ESP)
MF: Xabi Alonso (ESP)
This spot was the toughest to pick, not just because there are so many deserving candidates—but because they all play in the same midfield. If you are looking for Spain’s most talented midfielder in this tournament, it might not be Xabi Alonso. In fact, it probably isn’t (and it might even be that guy named Cesc who was relegated to the bench). Andrés Iniesta has been brilliant as always, as has Xavi. David Silva has recaptured his sparkling form that made the mouths of English pundits drop with astonishment and water in a way that I don’t much like describing. But, for my money, it has been Xabi Alonso, owner of 101 Spanish caps (but how I wish they were Dalmations), that has been the most integral midfielder when it comes to Spanish success on both sides of the ball. He had a brilliant two-goal performance against France, but his contributions go much deeper than that. Winning the ball quickly and efficiently in defense, strong in link-up play, and dangerous going forward, Xabi Alonso has been central to Spanish success in each third of the park. He has the second most completed passes in the tournament behind Xavi, but has also undoubtedly been the hardman in the middle for Spain. I see no better two-way midfielder in this tournament than Xabi Alonso—and that is why he is on my Best XI.
Honorable mentions: Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas (ESP)
FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo (POR)
We can forget about the opening match against Germany, which was a disaster. He was wasteful against Denmark, but undoubtedly dangerous. After those two matches, Cristiano Ronaldo has been the most lethal attacking threat in Euro 2012, Mario Balotelli included. With two especially magnificent performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, we saw the Cristiano we knew was capable of showing up. He scored 3 goals in those two matches, but it was inches away from being 6 or 7—that’s how good he was. He was the biggest threat Spain have seen in this tournament, and even though he was unable to tally for his team in the semifinals, he put in a good shift. It will go down as a missed opportunity to make a bigger impact and do something truly historic for his country, but it was a decent tournament for a man who had a wonderful year—and should win the Ballon d’Or. If only he had gotten to take a penalty…
Honorable mention: Dimitris Salpingidis (GRE)
FWD: Mario Balotelli
Hate him or love him, Balotelli is doing something amazing at 21 that we have not seen in quite some time. His goals against Germany in the semifinal are two of the best you will see anywhere, and aptly encompass the definition of ‘thumping’. He possesses unmatched physical power, incredible technique around the area, and a penchant for making the impressive look extraordinarily easy. His performance in this tournament has been nothing short of remarkable. At his best, he’s looked as dominant as Messi and Ronaldo (as he’s claimed to be), and even at his most ineffectual he’s been a handful. Balotelli may have silly haircuts and shoot fireworks off in his bathroom, but this tournament has done more for his reputation than for any other player. He is now poised to join the class of elite strikers in Europe for good, rather than just being a kid with exceptional potential. I’m hoping that will do his attitude a world of good, but who knows with this guy. Mario may never mature enough to take full advantage of his talents, but he is a man on a mission right now—and is wholly deserving of the recent praise being thrown his way. He is easily a member of the ‘Team of the Tournament’—and if he scores the winner against Spain, that won’t be the only honor coming his way.
Honorable mention: Mario Gómez (GER)