Euro 2012

Opening Ceremonies, Euro 2012

Euro 2012: Poland-Ukraine

This final Euro before the 2016 expansion to 24 teams was a remarkable one, virtually from start to finish.  Pre-tournament expectations naturally centered on Spain and their chance to become the first team to win 3 “major” tournaments (basically, the Euro and the World Cup, as Uruguay and Italy had each won 3 straight World Cup/Olympics between the wars, when the Olympics still meant something to European fans).  Talk of Spain’s “boring” style, however, had only intensified since the 2010 World Cup, building off the corollary debate over Barcelona’s parallel run of tiki-taka dominance (as of 2012, they are the only team to have reached the semifinals of the Champions League for the past 5 seasons; only Manchester United and Chelsea have managed 3 appearances in that stretch).  With a late injury eliminating top striker David Villa (as well as Fernando Torres off form and Fernando Llorente reportedly knackered), many questioned from where Spain’s penetration, and thus their goals, would come.

As in the previous World Cup, Germany were widely seen as Spain’s strongest competition—and once again as the more stylistically appealing team to those bored by the intricate and indirect patterns of tiki-taka.  Though largely the same personnel (roughly 11 players participated significantly for manager Jurgi Löw in both 2010 and 2012), Germany was seen as an improved side from the World Cup team that flattered to deceive, having been thoroughly dismantled by Spain in the semifinals.  Where that side, for all of their speed, style, and precision, had been a primarily counterattacking unit, the current German squad had evolved into a proactive controller of games, built around the maturing midfield trio of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, and Mesut Özil.  Mario Gomez, too, was coming off a spectacular 26-goal season for Bayern Munich, and was no doubt eager to shed his “big-game bottler” reputation that a quiet Champions League final performance against Chelsea had done little to amend.

Though Holland had largely moved past the controversy surrounding their “anti-Dutch” style in the 2010 World Cup (if not beyond the style itself), questions remained surrounding the team’s cohesiveness, especially given their draw within the tournament’s “Group of Death” alongside Germany, Portugal, and Denmark.  Questions, too, about whether Ronaldo might finally emerge on the international stage to the same degree that he had at club level, questions echoed for Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  This last was primarily a question for the British press, as Ibrahimovic retained a curiously low opinion in that country, presumably because of several underwhelming performances against the English national side.

Dutch Parade, Kharkiv

Surprisingly, the English press at the start of the tournament seemed to have remarkably modest hopes for the Three Lions and their now aging and somewhat tarnished Golden generation.  Some even suggested that Roy Hodgson’s squad, having had less than a full month to prepare under their disciplined new manager, would struggle to escape the group stage.  Wayne Rooney’s absence from the first two games because of a red card in England’s final qualifier did little to temper those concerns.  At least the British press could be counted on returning to form with a series of xenophobic stories on Polish and Ukrainian racism and fan violence, including the retired Sol Campbell, in his new post as Guardian talking head, encouraging fans to stay home.  As it would happen, most of the racist chanting at the games seems to have been imported rather than homegrown.

Despite their disastrous implosion in the previous World Cup, or perhaps because of those low expectations, France had emerged as a favorite “dark horse” pick.  While former manager Raymond Domenech set an admittedly low bar, Laurent Blanc seemed to have genuinely reshaped the squad into a strikingly successful unit.  While probably no one thought France had the cohesion and quality of Spain or Germany, or even the raw individual talent of Holland, they put together an impressive qualifying campaign with a possession-minded attacking style that enchanted many.  If things started to click, especially for the (probably too often) criticized midfielder Samir Nasri, one could imagine Blanc’s side overachieving.  Interestingly, given the way in which the tournament developed, the Italian squad remained largely under the radar, with a reputation recovered from their own World Cup embarrassments, but not playing a significant role in English discussions of the tournament.

And then there was Russia, not much discussed in the English press, no doubt thanks to the lackluster performance of Andrei Arshavin while at Arsenal.  Still, they looked certain to advance from a weak Group A and were built around players with club connections (at Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow), fairly clearly a key ingredient of both Spain and Germany’s recent successes.  While Eastern Europe was certainly no longer the home away from home it might have been in the Soviet era, Russia looked like a team that could surprise the Western football powers.  Such, at any rate, was the state of speculation at the outset of Euro 2012.

DISCLAIMER: I watched all but 270 minutes of the tournament, spread over four of the thirty-one games.  With the exception of Spain’s games, Group C was my weak spot.  I missed all of Italy – Ireland, slept through most of the 2nd half of Italy – Croatia (because of the hour I was watching rather than the quality of the game), and saw only 20 minutes each of Ireland – Croatia and Greece – Russia.  I also watched the opening two games and, simultaneously, Portugal – Netherlands and Denmark – Germany at a bar amongst friends (I further failed to take after-the-fact notes on Russia – Czech Republic).  I did watch every game in the knockout phase, and while the final three of those games were also watched amongst friends, I gave each a second viewing later that night to record notes.

Group B

João Moutinho and Jerome BoatengThough they are almost never remembered in later reflections on a tournament, the group stages of Euro 2012 were remarkably entertaining.  Virtually every game not involving Ireland offered either high quality or great excitement—and many of them combined both.  Group B certainly delivered a legitimate “Group of Death,” not only providing two semifinalists but also two departing teams that would most likely have advanced had they been placed in Groups A or D, a fact greatly obscured by Holland’s negative press.  A pointless exit with only Ireland below on goal difference was a bitter pill and did reveal real problems in the side.  But Denmark’s opening 1-0 victory was really born of a Michael Krohn-Dehli goal against the run of play and a disastrous lapse in finishing calm by the previously in-form Robin Van Persie.  Wesley Sneijder, playing as the team’s creative fulcrum, was commanding in midfield and probably the best player on either team.  The same could not be said in their 2-1 loss to Germany, where the pairing of Schweinsteiger and especially Khedira simply shut down the center of the pitch.  Even so, Holland looked the more dangerous team in the opening 20’ to the extent that Gomez’s first goal, played through by the first of two beautifully simple Schweinsteiger assists that day, was at least slightly against the run of play.  From there, the command of the game (if not of possession) shifted sharply in Germany’s favor, and Gomez’s second goal, again down the right flank from a Schweinsteiger through-ball, was a long time coming at 39’.  It was not until Sneijder shifted out to the left in the second half, away from Khedira’s attention, that he began to reassert influence.  His 73’ assist on a beautiful Van Persie goal started a revival of pressure that might have turned the tide.  Though a stifled performance by the Dutch, it was hardly a collapse against one of the tournament’s most fancied sides.

Only in their final game did Holland seem to truly come unglued, abandoning their previous starting XI and balance for a supposedly more attacking side in hopes, one supposes, that Cristiano Ronaldo would remain unable to fully assert himself.  Instead, Ronaldo placed his stamp on the game, first with an instinctive handling of a beautiful assist from João Pereira and then with a more meditated finish, given time by a slipping defender to decide how to beat Stekelenberg.  Portugal had opened with a tight, tense affair with eventual group winners Germany.  The game could have gone either way, though, for 5’-10’ before assisting the 72’ breakthrough header by Gomez, Thomas Müeller was looking increasingly dangerous down the right flank.  Portugal followed up this fantastic 1-0 loss with a 3-2 barnstorming victory against Denmark.  Portugal looked in control with two first half goals, from Pepe and Helder Postiga off a João Moutinho corner and a Nani cross respectively.  But at 41’, Krohn-Dehli chose to head the ball over Rui Patricio rather than aiming at goal, and Niklas Bendtner headed home the assist to pull back one going into halftime.  Ronaldo seemed unable to finish in this game, frustrating Portugal’s counter-attack, and when Bendtner headed in a second at 80’, the game seemed headed for a tie.  Cue super-sub Silvestre Varela, who also had an 88’ chance against Germany saved by Manuel Neuer.  Coming on at 85’, he initially scuffed Fabio Coentrão’s 87’ cross, but the ball stayed nearby, and he recovered to fire in a stunning shot edging around Simon Poulsen to slip inside the right post.  To that point, it was probably the goal of the tournament.

Denmark looked bright throughout, especially Krohn-Dehli, who scored a temporarily equalizing goal in the closing 2-1 loss to Germany.  But Christian Eriksen, the creative midfielder whom some had picked as a potential player of the tournament candidate, never really imposed himself against the admittedly stiff competition.  They were clearly the third best team in the group (possibly even fourth, based on the run of play), and no neutral could have wished for them to take either Portugal or Germany’s place.  Germany were simply magisterial, the only team in the tournament to earn a full nine points despite playing in the toughest group.  They looked every bit the team best equipped to unseat Spain.

Group A

Dmitry Pozharsky FlagWith the exception of Russia, this group always looked destined to provide cannon fodder for the advancing teams from Group B.  Russia certainly began the tournament imperially, beating the Czech Republic 4-1 in the second game of the opening day.  Andrei Arshavin looked particularly masterful, garnering two assists, one of them an utterly brilliant crossfield pass for a breaking Roman Shirokov.  So, too, did the 21-year old Alan Dzagoev, whose two goals seemed to finally announce his long-promised arrival as Russia’s next great star.  73’ substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko knocked in a fine goal as well in a game that never seemed in doubt, and raised real questions about the Czechs’ potential.  Co-hosts Poland came next, in a game scheduled on Russia Day.  Russian fans unwisely if predictably chose to march through the streets of Warsaw to the match in celebration.  Polish ultras met the march on a tactically chosen bridge, and despite police presence the only significant violence of the tournament ensued.  183 were arrested and 24+ injured.  The Polish team was coming off a riveting 1-1 tie in the tournament’s opening game with Greece and were powered by a Borussia Dortmund connection up the right flank: central striker Robert Lewandowski, winger Jakub Blaszczykowski, and right-back Lukasz Piszczek.  Tempting fate, Greece had opened with the defensively suspect Georgios Samaras attacking down that side, and Poland’s 17’ goal was indeed a Blaszczykowski cross for a Lewandowski header—given the dominance of the header in this tournament, an appropriate opening goal (a record-setting 22, nearly 30% of goals scored).  Poland dominated the first half and looked set after Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos was sent off with the second of two equally questionable yellow cards at 44’.  But at the half, Dimitris Salpingidis replaced Sotiris Ninis on the right and Fernando Santos restructured the ten-man formation.  At 51’, Salpingidis pounced on an uncleared cross and a positioning error by Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny to score an equalizer.  He would later force Szczesny to foul him in the box, but Szczesny’s replacement, Przemyslaw Tyton, saved the penalty and the tie.

The game between Russia and Poland was an open, two-way affair despite Russia’s superior possession.  Arshavin and Dzagoev once again connected, this time with a goal-scoring header off a free kick late in the first.  Ironically, though, it was another attempted assist from Arshavin for Dzagoev early in the second that, when broken up by an alert Sebastian Boenisch, led to Ludovic Obraniak breaking up the right flank and feeding Blaszczykowki for a wonder strike from the right to equalize.  A tie was almost certainly the best result for quelling potential fan violence later that night, but both teams would come to regret not taking more. Even so, Russia needed only another tie against last-placed Greece to advance.  The Greeks had lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic, who in response to their opening loss to Russia had reinstated defensive holder Tomas Hübschman in their midfield (a position he had lost in the qualifying campaign).  He assisted Petr Jiracek beautifully on the opening goal at 3’, and at 6’, right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie assisted Vaclav Pilar’s goal with a mishandled cross.  The Czechs never really looked back despite a costly halftime loss of midfielder Tomas Rosicky to injury, a sloppily conceded second half goal, and Greek pressure in the latter stages of the game.  Greek left-back José Holebas had a disastrous game, and was rightly left out of the starting XI against Russia (though he came in late in the game, replacing striker Gekas in a defensive shift).

Greece opened the game brightly, but after 10’ Russia took total control of the game, with chance after chance in the first half.  Whether they were unlucky or unmotivated was a matter of dispute, though in the portion of the half that I saw, I would favor the former.  At any event, reports agree that Greece had effectively no chances in the half—and yet, in injury time, team captain Giorgos Karagounis slipped into the Russian penalty box and scored.  In the second half, despite the introduction of Pavlyuchenko, Russia seemed less concerned to score than might have been expected, perhaps knowing that they would go through if the other game remained tied.  They continued to dominate possession, but couldn’t break down a Greek team that battened down the hatches even further.  Karagounis was taken out of the game by a controversial second yellow for diving on a play with definite contact, making him the second Greek unjustly removed, but with no effect beyond eliminating the captain from the following round.  The Russians ended with a 1-0 loss.  That left the simultaneous game between the Czech Republic and Poland.  Back-up goaltender Tyton kept his spot in Poland’s starting line-up over Szczensny, while Rosicky remained sidelined for the Czechs.  Although Poland dominated early on, the Czech Republic played themselves back into the first half, with both teams getting their best chances down their respective right flanks.  Around the 60’ mark, Poland shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with Obraniak in the center.  Whether the cause or an attempted solution to the problem, the Czechs began to dominate the game from this point on, culminating in a 72’ Jiracek goal, once again sparked by a defensive play from Hübschman.  That goal set them atop the group and put Russia out of the tournament.  The game was not over, however, as Poland again shifted to a 4-4-2 and began to press.  With literally the last action of the game, late sub Pawel Brozek headed on a Boenisch cross for Blaszczykowski, who turned his defender and got off a shot that seemed destined for the top left corner, only to be cleared off the line by Michal Kadlec.  Had the ball gone in, Russia would have still advanced; instead, the Czech Republic became the first team ever to win a group with a negative goal differential, Greece advancing behind them.

Group C

Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez

The cleverly dubbed “Group of Debt” (notwithstanding Greece’s absence, no doubt to enable their metaphor-laden quarterfinal against that European financial taskmaster, Germany) was expected to produce one semifinalist; the second was a real surprise, as is so often the case with Italy.  The Republic of Ireland simply did not belong in the tournament classwise, offering nothing other than an opportunity for memorable goals from the opposition, most notably Mario Mandzukic (3-1 to Croatia), David Silva and Cesc Fabregas (4-0 to Spain), and Mario Balotelli (2-0 to Italy).  Giovanni Trapattoni made Ireland a harder underdog to root for by largely refusing to play James McClean, Darren Gibson, and Shane Long, and by not even including Seamus Coleman or Wes Hoolahan in the squad.  Whatever the rationale for these omissions, the team certainly wasn’t defensively reliable and were a very welcome departure.  One wonders, in contrast, how Croatia might have fared in Groups A or D.  My greatest viewing regret was not giving fuller attention to Croatia’s 1-1 tie with Italy, as this was the game that led Cesare Prandelli to abandon 3-5-2 for the equally idiosyncratic version of 4-4-2 Italy would employ for the rest of the tournament.  Italy was clearly the better squad in the first half, as Andrea Pirlo was left free to control the game.  Antonio Cassano’s movement was excellent, and Mario Balotelli had shot after shot, not all of them advisable.  Still, it was a foul on Balotelli that allowed for Pirlo’s masterful free kick goal.  Even in the first half, though, Croatia had chances, and looked sharper at the start of the second, according to Michael Cox because of a change in formation from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1.  Whatever the reason, Mandzukic’s equalizing header put Croatia in a position to advance with a win or possibly even with a tie against Spain.

It would be easy to say that Croatia wasn’t up to the test, but wholly unfair.  As against Ireland, Spain started with Fernando Torres atop a 4-3-3, and without an aging Irish defense to manhandle, Torres once again looked off the mark.  Spain’s passing was precise as ever, but lacked speed of movement.  The first half was extremely quiet, and this was the game in the tournament where Spain most deserved the criticism heaped upon them from the start through the semifinals.  In many ways, Croatia played the better game, Gordon Schildenfeld defending brilliantly and Luka Modric both disrupting and creating in the midfield.  Croatia were also the first team in the tournament to move their starting right-back into the midfield to provide additional defensive coverage against Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta.  At 66’, Nikica Jelavic entered the game to join Mandzukic, and he re-energized the Croatian attack.  In the end, however, it was Vincente Del Bosque’s substitutions that turned the day.  Torres left at 61’ for right winger Jesus Navas, and at 73’ Fabregas came in for David Silva, who had contributed little since moving into the central striking role.  But it was Fabregas, at 88’, who received a long ball from Xabi Alonso and chose to pop it over the defense to the left for Andres Iniesta, rather than a more direct pass right to an offside Navas; and it was Navas who, now onside of Iniesta, received an assist he could walk into the net.  Spain advanced as group winners with Italy slipping into second.

For tactically inclined viewers, however, the game of the group stage was unambiguously Group C’s opener between Spain and Italy (though one could not be faulted for favoring Denmark – Portugal, and Sweden – England also offered great excitement, if not the technical quality of these games).  Italy, as noted above, began the tournament in a 3-5-2, with Daniele De Rossi operating as a sweeper between center backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, wing backs Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, and a midfield triangle in which Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio provided cover for the deep-lying Pirlo, replicating his role at Serie A-winning Juventus.  But while a 3-man back line unsettled some commentators, Spain’s “strikerless” 4-3-3—quickly rebranded a 4-6-0 to maximize outrage—operated like a red flag before bulls.  Already believed to lack sufficient attacking penetration, the decision to play Fabregas as a false nine was taken to be pushing a potential strength to the point at which it became a weakness, perhaps even to the point of parody.  Nor were the concerns raised solely by the tactically unsophisticated.  Following Barcelona, Spain was always likely to sacrifice width of attack, Iniesta and Silva coming inside from their nominal positions on the wing in order to ensure Spain’s dominance in the center of the pitch.  With Fabregas likely to also step back into the midfield, this seemed to sacrifice vertical as well as horizontal width, undoubtedly allowing Spain to control the ball in front of Italy’s defense but not necessarily giving them much variety in terms of methods to breech that line.

Whatever the concerns, Spain came out sharply to start the game, pushing Italy back and producing a series of chances from 8’-10’.  By 20’, though, Italy had played their way into the game, and the connection between Pirlo and Cassano was particularly effective throughout the first half (Balotelli was less so, though he was denied a chance at a Cassano rebound by a highly questionable foul call).  Michael Cox’s excellent analysis of the game suggests that issue probably had more to do with the space that Cassano and Balotelli could exploit at the back than with the time Pirlo was allowed on the ball.  Whatever the reason, Italy certainly created chances, and Iker Casillas was well tested.  Still, it must be said that while Italy’s defense may have looked the more capable, they were also the more frequently tested, with Spain dominating possession.  Early in the second, though, Spain’s chances came mostly from shots in front of Italy’s defense and outside their box, with the exception of an opportunity for Iniesta played through by Fabregas. Balotelli nearly made the difference at 53’, pressuring Sergio Ramos into an ill-advised backpass that put the Italian striker through alone on goal.  But somehow Balotelli allowed Ramos to catch up and execute a flawless tackle to keep the game scoreless.  Antonio Di Natale promptly replaced Balotelli, and equally promptly received a brilliant assist from Pirlo that put him in behind Gerard Piqué for the opening goal.  Del Bosque prepared to bring on Jesus Navas, presumably to add width to Spain’s attack, but before the change could happen, Spain put together a series of speedy and crisp passes culminating in a sharp through ball by Silva for a cutting Fabregas to score.  Navas, however, seemed unable to get his crosses in effectively once on for Silva.  10’ later, Fernando Torres replaced Fabregas, but his finishing blunted the several chances he had.  Del Bosque must have liked Torres’s chances despite his finishing, however, as the striker started the remaining group games.  In my view, neither substitute looked effective, and Spain was lucky that Di Natale missed a second chance later in the game.  A fantastic game between two teams that both deserved their positions in the quaterfinals.

Group D

Andrei Shevchenko's 2nd GoalThough Ukraine were destined to follow co-hosts Poland out of the tournament in the group stage, they opened with a 2-1 victory over Sweden, made all the more stirring by 35-year old Andrey Shevchenko scoring both goals.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened for Sweden at 51’, redirecting Kim Källström’s far post shot into the near.  Ibrahimovic looked sharp throughout, both as a direct threat and involving others (throughout the tournament, Erik Hamren played him in behind a central striker, Markus Rosenberg in this game).  One wonders, though, if Hamren’s decision not to play holding midfielder Anders Svensson was a sign of overconfidence.  In any case, Shevchenko equalized at 55’, beating Olof Mellberg to the near post for a stunning header off a corner; and then scored a nearly identical header from the opposite side off a corner at 61’, leaving the supposedly marking Ibrahimovic flat-footed.  Shevchenko became the second oldest player to score in the Euro, and it was a lovely moment for possibly the Ukraine’s finest player ever (though current manager Oleh Blohkin’s own playing career warrants some consideration).  The game, moreover, was more than the sum of its goals and was a great end to the opening round of games.  Sadly, Ukraine was demolished by France 2-0 in their second game.  Laurent Blanc made two defensive changes, presumably to starve Shevchenko’s supply of crosses.  The changes seemed to work, and France was superior throughout.  Blohkin changed all three attacking players for Ukraine’s final game against England, and their seven chances (two on target) to England’s zero in the opening 25’ was promising.  England’s first chance, at 28’, was a missed header unmarked at the back post that illustrated the rustiness of the returning Wayne Rooney.  But right at the start of the second half, the Ukrainian defense—especially goaltender Andriy Pyatov—bungled a Steven Gerrard cross so badly that even Rooney could bundle it in at the far post.  All that remained was a 62’ goal by Marko Devic that was “cleared” from inside the goal by John Terry and not counted.  Fortunately, the equalizer would have only affected the seeding of the advancing sides, and replays also showed that assisting Artem Milevskiy should have been called offside in any case.  In the aftermath, even Sepp Blatter acknowledged the necessity of goal-line technology, but 2014 will tell.

The English press, unsurprisingly, had abandoned their initial caution long before this final group game.  Their opener against France was a moral victory for Roy Hodgson’s organized and defensive approach.  For the opening 35’, England looked likely to capitalize on France’s shaky defense, particularly Philippe Mexes.  Their goal came from a long free kick by Gerrard headed in by Joleon Lescott at the far post, and shortly thereafter England packed firmly into two lines of defense.  France equalized before halftime, finishing a commanding series of passes with Franck Ribery opting to lay the ball off for Samir Nasri in space just outside England’s box rather than to turn and shoot himself.  Ribery also helped to screen Joe Hart from Nasri’s shot, which was a blistering low ball just inside the near post.  England held on, however, turning in a solid team defensive performance against a side favored (so far as one could judge, justifiably so).  The win was enough for many to reimagine England as a sort of rich man’s Greece 2004.  Next up was Sweden, with both managers shuffling their starting XI.  Hamren brought in center-back Jonas Olsson and holding midfielder Svensson to shore up his defense while putting former Bolton striker Johan Elmander ahead of Ibrahimovic.  No doubt recognizing that seven of Sweden’s last nine conceded goals were headers, Hodgson brought in Andy Carroll ahead of Danny Welbeck, who now played in support rather than atop England’s 4-4-1-1.  Hodgson was rewarded at 23’, when Gerrard launched a ball in from well out on the right that, by design or happenstance, allowed Carroll to deliver the most technically impressive header of the tournament for the opening goal.  In fact, England controlled possession in the first half, with Sweden attempting to counterattack but lacking the pace to do so.  Center-back Mellberg was responsible for marking Carroll on England’s goal, but he made up for his error first with a brilliant tackle to dispossess a breaking Welbeck at the end of the first half, then apparently scoring the equalizing goal off an acrobatic Ibrahimovic assist (it was eventually reclassified as an own goal), and finally with a go-ahead header at 59’.  Hodgson responded by bringing on Theo Walcott for James Milner, and his impact was immediate.  He scored a lucky equalizer, knocking back a short clearance that was screened from keeper Andreas Isaksson.  Then, at 78’, Walcott cut inside on marker Sebastian Larsson and past defender Jonas Olsson to assist Danny Welbeck, back to the goal, guiding the ball far post with the inside of his back heel.  It was a wonder goal to win the game and eliminate Sweden from the tournament (preceded only by Ireland).  Who could blame the English press for unreachable ambitions after such a win, especially when the Three Lions went on to top the group?

While England was defeating Ukraine, group favorites France were pursuing their dead rubber against eliminated Sweden.  The real difference was a brilliant goal at 54’, a textbook volley by Ibrahimovic off a Larsson cross.  Larsson eventually scored a second in injury time to finish the game 2-0.  France was roundly criticized for their performance, and with the exception of Ribery they probably did lack urgency.  Yet France still went through, if not as group leaders, and they were always in the game, urgency notwithstanding.  The press did their best to make a locker room incident after the game sound like the previous World Cup, but the only real causes for concern were the fact that France would face Spain in the quarterfinals and that manager Blanc still seemed uncertain about how to configure his midfield.


Mesut Özil and Georgios TzavellasThe quarterfinals were a letdown across the board, with the exception of Czech Republic – Portugal.  Though the Czechs were the side that finished first in their group, no one doubted Portugal’s actual superiority, especially with Rosicky still injured.  Whether by design or improvisation, and probably to lessen Ronaldo’s defensive liability (by pitting him against the more conservative David Limbersky rather than Gebre Selassie), Nani and Ronaldo swapped sides from roughly 10’-20’.  Whatever the thinking, this proved the only period of Czech dominance in the game.  Portugal reasserted control after returning to their normal positioning—especially Ronaldo, who narrowly missed a bicycle kick and a free kick, and in injury time before the break created an utterly brilliant chance saved only by the woodwork.  Even so, the Czechs were surely pleased to make it to halftime tied.  Portugal resumed their domination in the second half, but the Czech Republic held off the assault until 79’, when Nani fed a breaking Moutinho for a cross headed in powerfully off the ground by a diving Ronaldo.  His third goal and second game-winner in two games surely put to rest any questions about Ronaldo’s performance in the tournament, as well as setting up an Iberian semifinal.

Germany – Greece allowed the press a field day of financial crisis metaphors, but the game never seemed in doubt, particularly after Philipp Lahm’s 39’ goal.  This despite Löw resting Gomez, Müller, and Podolski.  In the end, the game was probably most significant for the unheeded warnings: Schweinsteiger’s extremely poor performance (finally showing the effects of an injury he had been carrying throughout the tournament), and the two goals allowed, one of them at a point that might have made a game of it.  The final quarterfinal game between England and Italy was, for the most part, a dull, one-sided affair.  Italy’s 4-4-2, first deployed in the final group game against Ireland, abandoned wingers altogether in order to allow both Marchisio and De Rossi to both provide defensive cover and quick outlets for the deep-lying Pirlo, with Riccardo Montolivo operating as a second, more conventional creator behind Cassano and Balotelli.  With four central midfielders, almost the only option for successfully marking Pirlo was a striker willing to drop off.  Welbeck fit this bill occasionally, but Rooney, whether through disinclination, lack of full match fitness, or poor recognition, failed utterly.  So Pirlo and Italy dominated the game, especially the extra time (with Welbeck subbed off for Carroll), and England were lucky to reach a shoot-out.  Fortunately, the better team on the field also won the shoot-out, with Pirlo’s homage to Antonin Panenka’s 1976 Euro-winning penalty a legitimate highlight.  Even the English press seemed to recognize their team had punched above its weight, and accepted the loss with surprising equanimity.

France was, I think, judged too harshly for their 2-0 loss against Spain in the third quarterfinal game.  Commentators were scornful of Blanc’s decision to play right back Mathieu Debuchey in the midfield to provide extra cover against Iniesta and Alba, even though Croatia had reasonable success with this strategy in the group stage.  The fear, at least, was justified; a slip by Debuchey freed Alba for a smart cross over Iniesta and Fabregas to Xabi Alonso at the far post (whose run was completely untracked by Florent Malouda), heading in to put Spain up at 19’ and allow them to sit back and pass the ball about the midfield for the rest of the game.  Commentators seemed to have already written their script by the end of the first half, blaming French indifference rather than crediting Spanish superiority, and as a result most failed to notice a fairly bright 15’-20’ patch in the second largely due to Franck Ribery.  But possession stats told the truth: while Spain had roughly 65% at 35’, they finished closer to 55%, suggesting a significant improvement on France’s part.  Even so, Les Bleus were unable to disrupt Spain’s holding pattern in the first half, and their exit rightly left a sour taste in the mouth.  To be sure, the game was over long before Alonso’s second goal on a penalty.  Relatively unnoted was the fact that Blanc did not start any of the three players mentioned in press accounts of the earlier locker room incident: Nasri, Alou Diarra, and Hatem Ben Arfa (who, in fairness, was not really expected to start).  Perhaps Blanc had taken the incident more seriously than he publically suggested.


Spain's Negredo and Portugal's Alves jump for header during Euro 2012 semi-final soccer match in Donetsk

If the quarters disappointed, the semis were two of the finest games of the tournament.  In the first semifinal both Spain and Portugal featured new central strikers in otherwise unchanged sides.  But while Hugo Almeida was expected to replace the injured Helder Postiga, Del Bosque’s inclusion of Alvaro Negredo was a surprise after his return to Fabregas in the central role in the quarterfinals.  As it happened, neither striker proved effective and both left the game before extra time.  Of course, neither team really depended on their striker, so the game was hardly diminished.  Instead, Portugal offered the stiffest resistance to Spain since Holland in the World Cup final.  But where the Dutch approach was built around physical force (up to a cleat in the chest), Portugal shrunk the pitch and the clock with a high line and aggressive but legitimate pressing.  In a way, Holland 2010 and Portugal 2012 mirror the evolving approach of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in their two seasons of engagement with Barcelona.  While in the 2010-11 classicos, Real tried grit and force to unsettle Barca’s tiki-taka, the 2011-12 side turned to a more technical game (including limited pressing of the sort more consistently applied by Portugal in this game).  At any rate, Portugal managed to maintain 43% of possession, a real achievement and a sign of their effective disruption of Spain (and unlike France, who earned a similar fulltime stat with possession predominantly gained after Spain was protecting its lead, Portugal had consistent numbers throughout).  Both teams, though, were creating chances, Portugal largely through an impressive Ronaldo, and the frustration of many commentators was frankly baffling.  Ultimately, though, disruption proved to be all Portugal could achieve, and that only for 90’, as Spain utterly dominated an exciting extra time.  For the final 5’, the ball effectively remained in the Portuguese half as Spain tried unsuccessfully to break down a team that remains a defensive gold standard despite Bento’s increased freedom for Ronaldo.  Thankfully, the shoot-out once again allowed the deserving winners to advance.  At the time, I judged this the most compelling game of the tournament, and the frustration, boredom, and disappointment of the majority of commentators reveals a lack of either interest in or understanding of the game in-between the penalty boxes.

The Germany – Italy semi offered a game that everyone could enjoy—and justifiably so, for its openness was not the result of technical deficiency or incompetent defending.  Despite starting Toni Kroos on the right to provide a third defensive-minded player in the midfield, Germany simply couldn’t find an answer to Pirlo, who probably turned in his finest performance in a generally magisterial tournament (a second quiet game from Schweinsteiger did not help in this regard).  Germany started more brightly, but after the opening 15’ Italy began to look the more dangerous.  Being hounded by Özil at 20’, Pirlo retreated into his own half unmolested and delivered a long ball to Chiellini on the left, whose pass to Cassano set up one of the finer assists of the tournament, as the striker beat two defenders and placed a ball perfectly to the head of an attacking Balotelli in a single action.  The game was far from over, however, as Germany was again the more threatening side by 25’.  At 36’, though, Montolivo recovered a ball cleared from a German corner and launched it over the top for Balotelli in behind.  The usually sharp Lahm was surprisingly out of position on the play, but that should take nothing away from Balotelli’s masterful finish, a shot that swerved so crisply into the top right corner that it left Neuer flat-footed despite being perfectly positioned.  That second goal took the wind from Germany’s sails for the rest of the half, but Löw brought on Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus (both starters in the quarterfinals) at the start of the second, and by 50’ Germany were again pressing.  But Italy made changes of their own from 60’-70’, and those fresh legs made the difference.  Özil’s penalty in stoppage time was too late to make a difference, and Italy deservedly advanced to the finals off a 2-1 victory.


Euro 2012 Finals FansThen came the final, as impressive a finish to a major tournament as you’re ever likely to see.  Spain returned to Fabregas up top, while Italy were unchanged despite some idle speculation that they might return to the 3-5-2 used in their first game against Spain.  From the outset, Spain played faster than they had at any other point in the tournament, passing crisply as well as precisely and seeking to penetrate whenever possible.  Italy’s plan of attack—the only one, at least, they seemed able to implement, involved long balls over the top.  As he had proven throughout the tournament, this was hardly a desperate strategy with Pirlo in charge; but Spain seemed well-prepared, and handled the long balls with little fuss.  After a series of early chances, including an Iniesta feed for Alba that foreshadowed Spain’s second goal, the breakthrough came at 14’.  The goal was truly fitting in its team spirit: Xabi Alonso > Arbeloa > Silva > Iniesta > Silva > Arbeloa > Xavi > Iniesta > Fabregas > Silva > goal.  A long cross, followed by quick and precise yet patient passing, inside and out, forward and back, until a moment of mutual recognition spurred a simultaneous run and pass, Fabregas penetrating not for his own shot but for the space to recognize the team’s final option.  Interestingly, Fabregas’s pinpoint assist for Silva—not a striker known for his heading prowess—was from a position on the field not far removed from where he scored in the Ireland game.

Spain was so clearly superior that it was easy to miss Italy’s impressive display from roughly 23’ to 35’, where they actually looked the more dangerous side.  But Spain’s second goal, a blistering move by Jordi Alba perfectly assisted by Xavi Hernandez, put an effective end to the game as a contest.  After a quiet tournament, the assist put a welcome spotlight on the figure unquestionably at the center of Spain’s dynastic run.  Whether because of the wear on an aging body from a half-decade of year-round football anchoring both Barcelona and Spain or, as Dermott Corrigan suggested, because of the slightly different role he plays in the national side, Xavi seemed far less influential despite still dominating the tournament’s passing statistics.  In fact, Xavi’s most important contribution in the final was defensive rather than offensive.  With Fabregas as a false nine, frequently dropping back into the midfield, Spain was the only team able to match Italy 4 v. 4 in the midfield.  Xavi, however, seemed to be primarily tasked with marking Pirlo, and became the first player in the tournament to do so effectively.  The defensive performance was impressive enough to lead Michael Cox to place Xavi in his second XI for the tournament despite his otherwise subdued performance.

Prandelli brought in Antonio DiNatale at the start of the second half, and he had two chances early on.  Spain quickly reasserted their dominance, however, and at 60’, tragedy struck in the form of a pulled hamstring for third Italian substitute, Thiago Motta, only 3’ after his introduction (Chiellini was injured and had to be removed early in the game).  The game was now thoroughly finished, though Spain’s dominance made Italy’s chances largely theoretical even before the injury.  At 75’, Torres came on for a victory lap that produced a goal and an assist to earn him the tournament’s golden boot.  The award fittingly underlined Spain’s utter dominance in the tournament.  Accused of lacking offensive thrust, they nonetheless captured the top individual offensive award, and with a player who contributed virtually nothing to the team in real terms.  Moreover, Torres captured the award with an assist rather than a goal (tying him with Germany’s Gomez) in a position from which he could quite possibly have scored himself; and because Spain’s strikerless formation meant that his production came in fewer minutes than Gomez’s.  With the Golden Boot, as with the tournament as a whole, Spain won it their way, producing the greatest margin of victory in a Euro final in the process.  While the future is notoriously unpredictable, it is difficult to imagine that this game (particularly its opening 60’) will not be remembered as the capstone to Spain’s remarkable run.

Jordi Alba

In the long run, Euro 2012 will probably be remembered for its final three games rather than its riveting group stage (perhaps for the last time, given the tournament’s expansion) or its disappointing quarterfinals.  One suspects that, with time, Spain’s “boring” epithet will disappear and Euro 2012 will be remembered through the narrative of their dominance.  They have certainly placed themselves in the conversation on the best international sides of all-time.  Like the great Bralizian sides from 1958 to 1970 (and really, that oft-mentioned final side stands in as the culmination of that longer arc of dominance), Spain can boast not only longevity of success, but also a transformation in how the game is understood and played.  Tiki-taka may be an inevitable evolution of the Dutch Total Football, but it is this final stage that has truly reshaped the game both at the club and the international level, forcing every team to reconfigure their game when facing Barcelona or Spain, and creating the bounds within which contemporary tactical thinking is being framed.  At the moment, my suspicion would be that Brazil 1970 will probably still retain popular recognition as the finest side of all-time.  Memory operates on highlights, and the magical fluidity of that Brazilian side lends itself to romanticization.  On the other hand, Spain’s run may not be through.  Should they win at Brazil 2014, they would become the first European squad to do so on South American soil.  Moreover, such a win would probably require the successful integration of a second generation of Spanish players into the side, a process that Brazil struggled through in 1966.  In any event, the ultimate place of this Spanish side must certainly await the events of 2014.

Top Goals, Assists, and Other YouTube-able Awards

As Jonathan Wilson astutely noted in regards to the previous World Cup, goals are overrated; and it follows that compilations of top goals are equally so, distorting our understanding of the full game by drawing our attention away from its quieter and less easily appreciated beauties.  With that in mind, I have collected alongside my list of top goals a comparable list of top assists, lest we focus our attention too narrowly on what happens only the instant before the ball goes in the net.  Then there are the players whose tournament appears undervalued in such lists because their moment of brilliance ended in a great save or the woodwork, or whose pass found a clumsy final touch.  I have honored one such play of each; there could, of course, be many more.  None of this addresses the inherent offensive bias of such lists; in a perfect world, I would have also compiled lists of top saves, top tackles/interceptions, and if not a list then at least an award for defensive positioning.

My post-tournament survey initially included 23 goals and 18 assists, four of them appearing on both lists, from a tournament of 88 goals (including shoot-outs; 76 in open play) and 65 assists.  Ireland was the only nation not included in that initial tally (apologies to Sean St Ledger and Aiden McGeady), though five of the nine goals they allowed were.  In the final shakedown, Netherlands also fell off the lists (Robin Van Persie’s strike against Germany dropping out; Rafael Van der Vaart’s shot against Portugal made some compilers’ lists, but not mine), and Poland only received an honorable mention.  At some point in the future, I will try to provide links to these goals if possible.  Currently, materials are taken down too quickly to make the search worth the effort (though you may still find some of these online if you’re willing to search for them).

Defining Moment of the Tournament

Spain (14’) vs. Italy [Final].  This David Silva header from a Cesc Fabregas assist could have topped both the goal and assist lists.  Silva’s redirection of the ball to the far post is brilliant; and Silva’s lack of expertise as a header underlines the quality of the assist.  But the real significance of the goal is grossly distorted by focusing on the final two players to touch the ball.  Even adding Iniesta’s through pass for the breaking Fabregas, significant though it is, misses the point.  Coming at the end of a ten-pass sequence involving six different players, this game-winning goal to clinch an unprecedented third major tournament in a row will undoubtedly come to represent the majesty of this Spanish side, much as Brazil’s final goal against Italy in the final of 1970 World Cup has become a figure for the free-flowing majesty of that side.  To compare this goal and its build-up with other moments of individual brilliance is simply to miscategorize.  And so it stands alone in the tournament, awaiting a larger conversation amongst the twilight of the Gods.

Top 10 Goals

10. Andrea Pirlo (Italy, PK vs. England).  It seems outrageous to deny a spot for the only free kick goal in the tournament (Pirlo 39’ vs. Croatia); but both in terms of import and simple viewing pleasure, Pirlo’s penalty kick in Italy’s quarterfinal shoot-out with England was superior.  The style and panache of his off-speed “panenka” eliminated any psychological edge Joe Hart might have had and turned the momentum of the shoot-out (which England was leading at the time).  Even more impressive is the fact that the same strategy blew up in his face in a pre-season game against Barcelona two seasons ago (check out the video).  Talk about nerves of steel.

9. Andrey Shevchenko (Ukraine, 55’ vs. Sweden).  Though neither host advanced, both had moments of real pride.  Poland’s Jakub Blaszczykowski’s 57’ equalizer against Russia (up yours, Dmitry Pozharsky) has a reasonable claim to the best goal not on this list.  But both of Ukraine’s goals in their victorious opener came from 35 year-old Andrey Shevchenko, the nation’s most respected active player.  The goals were virtually identical near post headers, but credit Shevchenko’s acceleration—at 35—to beat his marker on the first.

8. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia, 48’ vs. Ireland).  From Robert Lewandowski’s opening goal of the tournament to David Silva’s in the final, Euro 2012 was a tournament of headers.  Probably the finest in technical terms was Andy Carroll 23’ vs. Sweden.  But that goal is also on my assist list, and anyway Carroll only managed to do it once that game.  Like Shevchenko, Mandzukic managed two headers in Croatia’s victory over Ireland, and his were both from distance and aimed at the bottom right corner.  The second had more pace, so it makes the list.  Add in his 72’ goal vs. Italy, and it’s easy to see why Mandzukic was the first striker signed off the back of the Euros (by Bayern Munich, five days before the end of the tournament).

7. Petr Jiracek (Czech Republic, 72’ vs. Poland).  This goal was the last added to the list, narrowly edging Roman Pavlyuchenko 82’ vs. Czech Republic.  That goal was certainly more sui generis, the closest this tournament got to a display of virtuoso dribbling; and the stunningly unexpected finish justifiably earned it a place on many top goal lists.  But Jiracek runs directly into two defenders rather than holding one off, and when his move to beat the first offers a tackling opportunity to the second, he responds not with recovery but with a sharp shot just underneath the left hand of Polish keeper Przemyslaw Tyton.  The speed of action, coupled with the fact that this was a game-winning goal to put the Czech Republic through while Pavlyuchenko’s came at the end of a blow-out, tips the scale in Jiracek’s favor.

6. Mario Balotelli (Italy, 36’ vs. Germany).  Both of Balotelli’s goals in the semifinal against Germany were special (see the top assists for the 20’ goal).  For his second, Balotelli was in behind with space and (just enough) time.  But he left Manuel Neuer flat-footed despite perfect positioning on the keeper’s part.  Nor was it simply the pace of the shot that froze him.  On the replay, you can see the vicious swerve on the ball, carrying it away from Neuer and right into the corner.  A goal of obvious power and deceptive skill.  The muscle-flexing celebration adds its bit of flair too.

5. Mario Balotelli (Italy, 90’ vs. Ireland).  Against Germany, Balotelli’s goals were important.  Against Ireland, coming on after having lost his starting position, his goal was sheer joy.  Just watch him hit a textbook half-bicycle and then get up as if nothing’s happened.  Watch Leonardo Bonucci run over to celebrate with him, only end up stopping Balotelli’s mouth as the striker begins to berate his manager for not starting him.  Classy?  Certainly not.  But life is too short not to appreciate style.  As a neutral, how can you not love this man?

4. Silvestre Varela (Portugal, 87’ vs. Denmark).  This goal probably saved Portugal’s—and thus Cristiano Ronaldo’s—tournament.  Having conceded a tying goal at 80’ after having been two goals up, Portugal would have needed a fantasy scenario in the final group games to advance ahead of Denmark when Varela was subbed on at 85’.  He had nearly scored an 88’ equalizer against Germany in Portugal’s opener, but his initial stab at Fabio Coentrão’s cross looked like a blunder.  But that mistake set him up perfectly to thread the needle between Simon Poulsen and the right post.  A great recovery, and a great goal.

3. David Silva (Spain, 49’ vs. Ireland).  This is why your coach tells you to close on the man with the ball.  In fairness, it’s hard to imagine a happy scenario for Ireland here; but a more decisive response by Stephen Ward might at least have forced Spain to score in a way that didn’t humiliate the three men behind him (keeper Given included) as well.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden, 54’ vs. France).  His flight home had already been booked when Ibrahimovic left his most impressive mark on the tournament, a textbook volley that will justifiably live in youtube immortality.  Pure pride.

Danny Welbeck1. Danny Welbeck (England, 78’ vs. Sweden).  Many viewers needed the instant replay to confirm that Welbeck intended to redirect Walcott’s cross (itself the result of a brilliant penetrating run) into the far post.  You can hardly blame them, given the speed of Welbeck own reaction.  Recognizing that Walcott’s pass was marginally behind, he turned his back to ward off the defender and, rather than attempting to control and turn, simply directed the ball with his inside heel toward the far post.  It was a move that somehow combined English pragmatism with continental flair.  That it was a game-winner in the final 12’ of regulation was merely icing on the cake.

Honorable Mentions (in chronological order): Roman Pavlyuchenko (Russia, 82’ vs. Czech Republic), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Poland, 57’ vs. Russia), Andrea Pirlo (Italy, 39’ vs. Croatia), Jeremy Menez (France, 53’ vs. Ukraine), Andy Carroll (England, 23’ vs. Sweden), Sami Khedira (Germany, 61’ vs. Greece).

Top 10 Assists

10. Bastian Schweinsteiger > Mario Gomez (Germany, 24’ vs. Netherlands).  Though his form slipped disastrously as the tournament progressed, Schweinsteiger looked as good as his midfield partners in the opening games and managed to deliver the assists on both of Gomez’s goals against the Netherlands.  They are similar assists: simple, direct passes to expose the opposition.  That simplicity comes from Schweinsteiger’s perfect execution within a brutally effective attacking system.  Take your pick (or consider this a cumulative award for the pair); today, I’ve chosen the first.

9. Dimitris Salpingidis > Georgios Samaras (Greece, 55’ vs. Germany).  Salpingidis was unquestionably the best attacking player for the Greek side, and this perfect cross at the end of a sprint down the flank allowed Samaras to put them even with Germany early in the second half of their quarterfinal tie.  Nothing came of it, of course, but this cross is so perfectly placed just out of Manuel Neuer’s reach and timed to Samaras’s run that you can’t help but admire its old school beauty.

8. (tie) Andrea Pirlo > Anotnio Di Natale (Italy, 60’ vs. Spain [Group Stage]); Xavi Hernandez > Jordi Alba (Spain, 41’ vs. Italy [Final]).  Italy and Spain met on the third day of the tournament and again in the final.  In that first game, Italy went ahead with Pirlo’s perfectly weighted pass down the left flank to put Di Natatle through on goal.  In the final, Xavi secured Spain’s second goal with a perfectly weighted pass down the left flank for a breaking Alba.  In fact, Andres Iniesta had nearly done the same thing with Alba at 7’.  But these two assists are such perfect bookends that it seems wrong to choose between them.

7. Steven Gerrard > Andy Carroll (England, 23’ vs. Sweden).  Gerrard had a fantastic tournament, and was one of four players who ended the tournament with three assists.  Two of them were long balls for headers, a free kick to Joleon Lescott against France and this one in open play to set-up the most technically impressive of the 22 headers in the tournament.  Nor were these lobs part of a Neanderthal barrage of English long ball; Gerrard chose his moments with care and delivered brilliantly.  And to be fair, Carroll’s brilliant handling of the ball once it arrived doesn’t hurt this assist either.

6. Franck Ribery > Samir Nasri (France, 39’ vs. England).  You probably need to see the full game replay of this goal to fully understand how Ribery earned his spot in this list.  The first part is clear enough: from inside the box himself, Ribery has the awareness to forego his own chance to turn and shoot, instead passing back out of the box to give Nasri space for an unmarked blast.  What the replay from behind the goal shows, though, is that Ribery’s work didn’t stop there.  He also helps to screen Joe Hart, further aiding Nasri’s goal-scoring endeavor.  A selfless and subtle assist like this deserves our approbation.

5. Andrei Arshavin > Roman Shirokov (Russia, 24’ vs. Czech Republic).  The remaining five assists could each be judged the best in the tournament, as each brings something special and unique.  Arshavin was absolutely masterful in the first two games of the tournament, and while Dzagoev was the most frequent beneficiary, this crossfield assist to Shirokov was his finest moment.  In fact, the assist is so brilliant that he fools his own teammate with it.  Aleksandr Kherzhakov, who actually serves as the dummy to freeze goalie Cech, clearly believes that the pass was intended for him, so much so that he is still turned toward Arshavin complaining about the poor service while Shirokov is scoring behind him.

4. Jordi Alba > Xabi Alonso (Spain, 19’ vs. France).  Alba’s service for Xabi Alonso’s far post header echoed João Moutinho’s dramatic 79’ ball for Ronaldo to put Portugal through against the Czech Republic earlier in the quarterfinals.  The difference?  Anyone in Moutinho’s position would have had the good sense to look for Ronaldo (though not, of course, the skill to actually find him).  Alba, on the other hand, looks past Iniesta waiting for a cut-back and Fabregas marked but available in front of the goal to see Xabi Alonso’s potential run to the far post.  That recognition is what puts him on the list.

3. Antonio Cassano > Mario Balotelli (Italy, 20’ vs. Germany).  Fairness requires some mention of the fine work Balotelli does finishing this goal by heading back at the near post to wrong-foot Neuer.  Having said that, the grace of Cassano under pressure from two defenders is remarkable.  With Mats Hummels coming out to meet him and Jerome Boateng closing from behind, Cassano manages to slip the ball between them, transfer it to his left foot, and deliver a spot perfect cross, virtually in a single movement.  Cassano had an excellent tournament in terms of his movement and interaction with Balotelli, and this assist demonstrates both of them.  Not bad for a man who had heart surgery in November.

2. João Pereira > Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 28’ vs. Netherlands).  Many of the honorable mention assists are of the same type as this seam-splittling ball up the middle, but several things distinguish Pereira’s effort.  First, there’s the vision involved.  Pereira gets the ball past his own marker, between two other Dutch players, and just the right side of a final defender to reach the swooping Ronaldo.  Then there’s the disguise involved in his side-footed delivery.  Finally, this was the goal that sparked Ronaldo.  By delivering him a ball in scoring position with no time to think, Pereira set Ronaldo up for an instinctive finish that could only boost his confidence.  Everything about this assist was pure class.

Michael Krohn-Dehli1. Michael Krohn-Dehli > Niklas Bendtner (Denmark, 41’ vs. Portugal).  This assist probably lacks the technical brilliance of Pereira’s ball, and it certainly lacks its pace.  Instead, this play unfolds as if in slow motion.  Jakob Poulsen’s arcing ball toward the left post gave Krohn-Dehli time and options.  He could have taken the ball in the air and hoped to either head or volley past the advancing Rui Patricio, which were probably the most likely options.  Or he could have collected the ball and attempted to pass across the goal, probably for Bendtner.  I have no idea whether these options would have been more or less effective choices.  What he did do was allow the ball to bounce and then, with Patricio closing in head the ball gently up and over the goalkeeper into the gaping space between Bendtner and the open goal.  You can see Bendtner realize what Krohn-Dehli has done, and the slow-motion lob gives him time to get there and tap in with his head.  Bendtner was able to return the favor of a headed assist for Krohn-Dehli in the following game against Germany, and his was a more technically accomplished header, but it had none of the spatial poetry and imagination of this one.  Others on the list, too, were more efficient and more technically challenging.  But none surprised in quite the way Krohn-Dehli did.

Honorable Mentions (in chronological order): Jaroslav Plasil > Vaclav Pilar (Czech Republic, 52’ vs. Russia), Roman Pavlyuchenko > Alan Dzagoev (Russia, 79’ vs. Czech Republic), David Silva > Cesc Fabregas (Spain, 64’ vs. Italy [Group Stage]), Tomas Hübschman > Petr Jiracek (Czech Republic, 3’ vs. Greece), Andres Iniesta > Jesus Navas (Spain, 88’ vs. Croatia), Karim Benzema > Yohan Cabaye (France, 56’ vs. Ukraine).


Woodwork Award

Cristiano RonaldoCristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 45’+1’ vs. Czech Republic).  No one took more shots (on or off-target) than Ronaldo, and no one hit the post more often.  Though he easily produced his finest performance thus far in a major international tournament, a few inches of luck spread across the opening two games would have easily earned him the Golden Boot.  Even in the quarterfinals, where Ronaldo was generally credited with his team’s victory, his most impressive moment was a goal that wasn’t.  Into stoppage time in the first half, Raul Meireles knocked a long ball into the box for Ronaldo, well covered by Michal Kadlec.  The Portuguese winger chested the ball and took an incredible second touch that allowed him to get away from the defender and, after a bounce, deliver a blistering shot on goal—but off the post.  This one is worth finding in a full game highlights video.  It’s the moments like this that really underline how impressive Ronaldo was in the tournament.


Thwarted Assist Award

Mesut ÖzilMesut Özil [tie] > Miroslav Klose/Lars Bender (Germany, 80’ vs. Denmark); > Miroslav Klose > Marco Reus (Germany, 74’ vs. Greece).  It seems strange to give an award for thwarted assists to one of the four players to end the tournament tied on three assists.  Yet unlike his midfield companion, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Özil was decidedly ill-represented by those assists.  One was a fairly standard free kick against Greece, headed in by Miroslav Klose against a poorly positioned keeper; while another was simply a routine pass that Philipp Lahm’s bomb from well outside the box retroactively turned into an assist.  Even his first credited assist, a brilliant crossfield pass finding the trailing Lars Bender for the winning goal against Denmark, suffers from the suspicion that it was really intended for Klose, who was also in great scoring position in the middle of the field but missed the ball.  Perhaps most representative of Özil’s actual quality of play was another “assist” to Klose in the latter stages of Germany’s quarterfinal romp against Greece.  Özil, himself breaking down the left flank, put a lovely long ball through for Klose in behind the defense and one-on-one against the goaltender.  But the keeper saved, setting up Marco Reus’s blistering goal but also denying Özil a brilliant assist.  That pass, far more than his three credited assists, captures the quality of Özil’s performance in the tournament and earns him the thwarted assist award.

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