The final round of group matches in international tournaments often throws up a lot of dead rubbers, but this Euro 2012 is different: there's something at stake in every single match. With just two teams already eliminated and the other 14 still jockeying for a place in the quarter-finals, the next four days will be exciting.
Plus, Fernando Torres scores!
First things first: in my last post, I pointed out UEFA's shortcomings at stopping racism and violence, but I'm happy to report they've taken some action on these issues. UEFA imposed a suspended six-point deduction in the next Euro qualifying phase and 120,000-euro fine on Russia, and opened another investigation into the behavior of the country's fans at its match against Poland, which saw a fair amount of violence outside the stadium. The Russian team spokesman was contrite and apologetic: "The federation has many fans. You don't have control over them all." Keep in mind these are the people that will be in charge of the 2018 World Cup.
In bigger news, though, UEFA has charged the Croatian Football Federation after its fans allegedly directed racist monkey chants and threw a banana on the pitch at Italy's Mario Balotelli. At least the Croatian federation had the decency to condemn the "deviant" supporters among its fans. While it's great to see UEFA taking some action on this front, keep in mind when Manchester City played Porto earlier this year and the Portuguese teams' fans were found to have racially abused Balotelli and others, Porto was fined 20,000 euros. That's 10,000 euros less than Man City was fined for arriving on the pitch less than a minute late in the same match. Priorities...
On to the football. As I said above, going into the final round of group matches, only Ireland and Sweden had been put out of contention for the knockout stage, while many of the favorites, like Germany, still weren't assured of their passage into the quarterfinals, meaning they'll need to take the matches seriously and not turn to their second string. The other big stories from the second bunch of group games:
- Fernando Torres comes good with two goals for Spain against the Irish in a 4-0 stomping. The Irish defense looked like they'd been out drinking Guinness with the Irish fans all night, which would have been okay, except that Ireland's strategy was unilaterally built around having a strong defense. Oops. Torres looked sharp, but Irish keeper Shay Given also looked soft on at least one of his goals, but Torres will take whatever he can get at this point. Will the performance be the start of a turnaround for Torres, or just the latest false dawn on his downward trajectory?
- The Dutch
go down like an Amsterdam hooker get knocked over like a dike in a flood are left wondering woulda, Gouda, shoulda after their second loss, this time to Germany and their Crispin Glover lookalike, Mario Gomez. I asked last time if the orange-wearing Dutch were paper tigers; the answer looks like yes -- but they're still alive.
- Some of the sleepy giants start to awake, as Spain wins 4-0 and France looked dominant in their 2-0 win over the Ukraine and Germany never looked too troubled against the Dutch. If these teams can stay in gear, they should go far.
If I'd have posted this yesterday, I'd have said I expected the Czech Republic and Russia to go through from Group A, and feel much more confident about the second of those predictions. In a pair of 1-0 results, the Czechs put out one of the co-hosts, Poland, while Greece managed to knock out Russia, a team that had looked pretty strong so far. The only more surprising thing Greece could do this weekend is vote in a government that's going to make even deeper austerity cuts, announce plans to travel to the moon and pass out ouzo in school lunches. The Czechs will face the second-place team from Group B, while the Greece will take on that group's winners, in the quarter-finals.
In Group B, aka the Group of Death, all four teams still have a chance to progress, but Germany is the most likely to advance and the Netherlands the least. Germany goes through as group winner with a win or draw against Denmark, and things get very complicated from there. The Germans can still advance with a loss in some scenarios. Portugal goes through with a win over the Netherlands, unless Denmark beat Germany 3-2 or by a higher one-goal margin; a draw is enough if Denmark doesn't beat Germany. The Danes go through with a win over the Germans, or a draw if Holland beat Portugal. As Young Williams pointed out in the comments last time, I was wrong to say it was over for the Dutch if they didn't beat Germany; but he was wrong too (this stuff is complicated, y'all), insofar as saying they needed a draw to stay alive. They lost, of course, but can still scrape through if they beat Portugal by more than one goal and the Germans win. Basically my plan to monitor all of this today is to start drinking and keep this page on the BBC site, where they update the tables live during matches, open.
I haven't seen much to make me think that the Germans won't beat the Danish; the Portugal-Netherlands match is a bit tougher to call. The Dutch will be playing for what's left of their pride, but their trouble in front of goal is going to make it hard to win by the two-goal margin they need to advance. Germany and Portugal will emerge here.
Group C has Spain, Croatia and Italy still in contention, following Spain's big win and a 1-1 draw between Croatia and Italy. You have to expect Italy to beat the Irish, but they need to outdo Croatia's 3-1 win to help them advance should Spain and Croatia draw. While Croatia's strong performances have been a little bit surprising, they shouldn't beat the Spanish, which will be just fine for Italy. Spain and Italy to go through... unless Spain and Croatia get up to some shenanigans and manufacture a 2-2 draw, a result that will render Italy's result meaningless.
Group D has the other eliminated team, Sweden, who lost 3-2 to England on one of the most badass goals you'll ever see.
In the other match, thunderstorms of biblical proportions delayed proceedings, before France dispatched Ukraine 2-0. The co-hosts can still go through, so don't expect them to lay down against England on Tuesday. England will be out for a win and goals, since the likely outcome of the matches will see England and France tied at the top of the group on 7 points, with goal difference determining the winner (France is currently at +2, while England is at +1). This is a slightly big deal as the second-placed team in the group will mostly likely take on Spain in the quarterfinals, with the winners getting Croatia or Italy. England will also welcome Wayne Rooney -- who missed the first two matches through suspension -- back into their side, and look to him for a spark.