Unfortunately and inevitably, it seems, the exciting and energetic soccer seen during the Euro 2012 group phase has dissipated into that nervous, cautious approach that seems to predominate in the knockout rounds.
Aside from Germany’s 4-2 thrashing of Greece, the other four elimination games have produced just three goals. The last two games – Italy’s quarterfinal “defeat” of England and Spain’s semifinal “triumph” over Portugal -- ended goalless and were decided on penalty kicks, strangely, by that same 4-2 score line as in the German triumph.
I put the verbs in parentheses because FIFA, in its dubious judgment, officially logs those games as ties, though for some reason two sets of players and coaches and fans rejoiced as two other groups mourned. We’ll set aisde the luck involved – both teams winning on penalties exploited their opponent hitting the crossbar once – and say that the better team during the 120 minutes prevailed on PKs. We didn’t get entertainment but we did get fairness, of a sort.
One can hope the final would produce an open, exhilarating 4-2 game, yet the odds are slim at best and viritually nil if Italy and not Germany progresses. The chances of Germany playing soccer, as opposed to merely trying to survive the Spanish passing Armada, are much better than those of Italy, which is just the type of experienced, clever team – and probably the only team in the world currently – that could knock off both Germany and Spain in the space a few days apart in a major competition.
The Italians clearly outplayed the English, and while that isn’t much of a feat these days, the class they exude – personified by elegant playmaker Andrea Pirlo and majestic goalkeeper Gigi Buffon – and the fact they have already tied Spain, 1-1, in the group phase gives their hopes a strong push.
It’s ironic for the Germans to be cast as the best hope of a lively 2012 Euro final, because it was they – and not the Italians, for example – who perhaps first came under fire when they played for results. That stigma goes back five or six decades, and is hardly relevant now, seeing as how the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Gomez can get at the other team, and how outside back Philipp Lahmis one of the most dangerous players in the tournament going forward.
Spain waited until overtime to really go at Portugal, a tactic for which coach Vicente del Bosque took a lot of heat, but I didn’t see Spain as trying to bore the Portuguese – and the worldwide audience – into falling asleep. Playing on two days’ fewer rest – a fact pointed out when the schedule was released but never addressed by UEFA – and knowing overtime and perhaps penalties were a viable possibility, Spain motored along at a moderate pace to conserve energy and control what little threat Portugal presented. Nani had his moments but foraging virtually alone as Spain locked down Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho, his nation rarely threatened.
“We’re the best team in the world and we have the ball,” the Spanish persona said to the Portuguese. “Come and get it and do something with it, if you can.” Portugal couldn’t. Since when is mastery of the ball a drawback?
Spain at times sloppily gave balls away; careless turnovers by Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique when they pushed into midfield could have been costly, but Spain’s relatively unheralded yet absolutely vital characteristic – pursuit of possession -- time and time again won those balls back dozens of yards from Iker Casillas' goal.
Some better play by David Silva and a few other players at critical moments would have yielded better shots and perhaps the goal necessary to open up the Portuguese. Jordi Alba played a great game at left back and whipped in a few balls that just didn’t click.
Spain’s failure to make those moments count, rather than any draconian decree by del Bosque, caused the dreary goalless drought to continue. During that drought the Portuguese tired, so that by the time del Bosque brought on fresh attackers in Cesc Fabregas, Pedroand Jesus Navas, he knew the chances were would come.
Experimenting with forward Alvaro Negredo as a starter didn’t pan out; except for some stout hold-up play he didn’t much influence the match. A crestfallen Fernando Torres, attired in a warm-up vest he still wore during the penalty-kick shootout, waited for a call that never came. The entire game and perhaps his tenure as national team coach would have blown up in del Bosque's face had Cristiano Ronaldo not badly sliced a rare Portuguese opportunity in the final minutes.
Yet Spain survived and prevailed -- but with 30 minutes’ overtime on already tired legs it may not have the energy to dazzle as so many would like Sunday in the final.