Euro 2012: On to the Knockouts

KRAKOW, POLAND - JUNE 20: Mario Balotelli attends a training session at Marshal Józef Pilsudski Stadium on June 20, 2012 in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

We are in to the knockout phase of Euro 2012, with the quarterfinals starting today when the Czech Republic takes on Portugal. The final round of group matches went mostly according to plan (at least if you were well-informed), in terms of teams that progressed. France scraped through Group D, despite a 2-0 loss to Sweden, a result which sparked a locker-room argument. Discord in the French camp? C'est it ain't so!

Spain also left it very late against Croatia, winning 1-0 on a goal that depended on a generous reading of the offside rule. The refs also had a say in the outcome of the England-Ukraine game, when they failed to award the hosts a goal despite the best intentions of John Terry to clear the ball off the line. Getting that goal (and presumably drawing the match 1-1) wouldn't have helped the Ukraine through, though -- and they had a player offside on the play as well.

There are three groups in which the remaining teams can be separated:

  • "Get Your Shit Together" - Teams who, unless they can kick things up a gear, aren't long for this tournament and face a summer holiday of broken dreams and transfers to Turkish third-division sides.
  • "Living Beyond Your Means" - These are teams who, for better or worse, are getting results beyond either their talent level, expectations or performances would normally dictate.
  • "The Strong and Silent Type" - These teams are just TCB with little fuss and quiet efficiency, going about their business and bringing home the points.

Spain and France belong in the GYST camp. Spain have looked far from impressive, and have bored far more than they've entertained. As I've said in previous posts, their style has been found out a bit, as you'd expect after a few years, but more worrisome is that the team has lacked the incisiveness needed to punish teams when the chances emerge from its patient build-up play. This Spanish side would go down as one of the best of all-time if it won this tournament, with nobody matching the achievement of winning three major international competitions in a row.

France (stop me if you've heard this before) has a lot of great players, like Benzema, Nasri, Ribery, Cabaye and more, but yet again seem to have a knack for undermining their efforts through some really awful team dynamics. While reports say that the latest batch of dressing-room discord isn't as bad as it was at the 2010 World Cup, that's not really saying much. The team's meltdown there involved the players essentially going on strike, and all-around nice guy Patrice Evra being filmed getting in a face-to-face confrontation with members of the coaching staff.

The path for one of these teams ends Saturday, and at this point, Spain will be slight favorites, but can't take France too lightly. The French, meanwhile, need to discover some cohesion, as well as top form, to advance.

No surprise of the first team in the Living Beyond Your Means group: Greece (ha ha ha ha!). On paper, this team isn't really very good, and emerged from probably the weakest group in the tournament. But they got the win over Russia when they needed it, and as a reward, get a match against Germany, who will probably reinforce their feelings on austerity measures and bailouts with a comfortable win.

England are here too, mostly because they managed to win Group D, exceeding most everybody's expectations. Their reward is an extra day of rest and to play Italy -- rather than Spain -- on Sunday. While the Italians won't be a pushover, they're definitely a preferable opponent to Spain.

Portugal rounds out this bunch, largely because they've pulled out results despite some poor performances. Cristiano Ronaldo went off against the Netherlands, arguably because of tactical miscues by the Dutch and their need to push to win the game, which played right into the Portuguese counterattack. Things are going to get much more difficult for them, starting with today's game against the Czechs, and I've got my doubts that Portugal can keep this up.

The last group is led by the Germans' quiet effiency. They haven't really kicked things into high gear, but they haven't needed to. They haven't struggled through any of their matches, winning them all by one-goal margins, and they haven't looked too tested yet, but could show some weakness at the back. Still, you've got to imagine they'll steamroll Greece before meeting the England-Italy winner. Italy themselves are also in this group, having entered the tournament under the cloud of another Italian football scandal and low expectations. But they've done a workmanlike job of getting through the group, drawing probably the two best teams in it (Spain and Croatia), then doing what needed to be done against the Irish. They'll look to keep things turning over against England, and then once you're in the semi-finals, it's all to play for. The Czechs belong in this group, too -- they're probably the least favored team left after Greece, but are a dangerous side, despite some real weakness upfront.

What say you? Who's going to win or who's going home?

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