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Spain in survival mode is still enticing
by Ridge Mahoney, June 28th, 2012 2:05AM
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TAGS:  european championship, spain


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 Lahm is 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, Pedro and 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.

  1. Marc Silverstein
    commented on: June 28, 2012 at 9:05 a.m.
    Ridge, it's actually correctly called "taking kicks from the spot".
  1. Ramon Creager
    commented on: June 28, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.
    I find it interesting that people equate Italy with a snoozefest and Germany with excitement. UEFA's stats say that Italy leads all teams with attempts on target per game, at 12.5. Spain are next with almost 10 per game. Not only are Italy putting shots on frame, they have conceded the fewest goals next to Spain.
  1. Carlos Thys
    commented on: June 28, 2012 at 4:10 p.m.
    Spain was pure sloppy. For over 100 minutes. Masters of the game? Not even. And Del Bosque using Negredo? Um, why? Didn't look like Negredo and the other 10 Spaniards had ever previously gotten acquainted. Xavi and Iniesta were rather disinterested, yes? And David Silva was a shambles. Yet Portugal was not that good. If this was a real sporting contest, should have seen at least three or four goals as neither side could defend or was tryign that hard to defend. The problem was zero ball skills, ideas, movement, combinations, interplay, or the conccept that these guys have been together nearly every day for an entire month (with lots of previous national team callups to get acquainted with how to play together). An utter waste of time. Weeding the garden and edge of the driveway would have been far more worthwhile.
  1. Karl Ortmertl
    commented on: June 28, 2012 at 9:37 p.m.
    What was I thinking? Spain - Portugal? All of that offensive talent? A great match displaying great play and great skills? Disappointed once again. I'm convinced that the only thing that can ever make these matches as exciting as they should be are a much bigger goal. If the goal were bigger, players would have to defend much farther out and couldn't go into the defensive shell that they always do when the stakes go up. They would have to defend the longer shots and that would open up the inside for some great play (as well as some great long shooting). But, alas, it will never happen. Just as it will never happen that there will be a much more reasonable approach to penalties by making them more granular. By that I mean not only Red and Yellow cards, but fouls. And players would foul out. The reluctance of refs to call fouls that kill the flow of the game and particularly those in the penalty box because the scores are so low and the impact of the call so great, kills the game for those who would rather see skill than thuggery. But, I'm dreaming. None of it will ever happen and we're stuck with what we saw in this match - nothing!
  1. Carlos Thys
    commented on: June 29, 2012 at 5:07 a.m.
    Thank you, Mr. Ortmertl. I agree in full. And I omitted this. Which should not occur as it was so much the factor as to why this match was abysmal. I think Bruno Alves opened the serious fouling for Portugal, but it was still awhile before the Turkish referee showed him a yellow card. If I were refereeing, Bruno Alves, Xabi Alonso, and Sergio Ramos would have all been yellow-red carded out of the match by about the 55th or 60th minutes. Pepe, Merieles, Pique, and Arbeloa would all be sitting on yellows and teetering on yellow-reds. I have no idea what FIFA and UEFA's hangups are with matches going from 11 to perhaps just 9 or even 8 players. That's how they play -- lots of fouls to stop the flow, kill the attacks, hack the playmakers and skilled ones. So...just yellow-red them off the field. It is the straightforward logical consequence of consistently unfair play. Anyone who can say that these were 120 good minutes of football is as well sighted as Ray Charles. Even he knows better. So odd that this tournament and ones like it are what is held up as the "gold standard," these matches where UEFA so very meticulously chooses only the creame de la creame of Euro Zone top referees. No, this is a farce. Mr. Ortmertl, my suggestion is to reduce the number of players on the field at the starting whistle. Today the field is clogged up; there is no space to play. The only way to fix this is to go to only 10 players (1 GK, 9 field players). I submit this as my sincere suggestion for football at these highest levels. As to matches still being very entertaining with send offs, look no further than a Argentine derby classic between Boca Juniors and River Plate. Four players total sent off, three for River. River still prevails (but just barely), winning 3-2. And the fans are loving it. Fox Soccer just showed highlights of this match from 2001 or 2002 I believe.
  1. Karl Ortmertl
    commented on: June 29, 2012 at 7:10 a.m.
    Carlos - like with almost everything, there's very little use in trying to convince people of rationality over the status quo. I never understood why eleven was some sort of a magic number of players and fewer to clog things up makes a lot of sense to me. But just like a bigger goal and more sensible fouling rules, it will never happen. The game right now is a travesty. Way too much pressure on referees who have to impossibly try to balance poor rules with an equitable outcome. For instance, when you only have one or two goals in a match, your decision on penalties in front of the goal have a monumental impact on the outcome of the game. The result? - Anything short of a complete mugging in front of the goalmouth is allowed for fear of overly influencing the outcome of the match. Referees end up absurdly ignoring blatant fouling. How is that a good thing that can't be improved upon? The same, as you mention, with the total reluctance to card thugs as if these thugs shouldn't be sent off? You start sending them off in droves and maybe they'll change their behavior. No, instead, you have referees ignoring blatant fouling in an effort to "save" the game from being a travesty by having players sent off. The irony being that if you had the guts to send them off, it would be saving the game. Anyway, a fouling rule I would like to see is 4 fouls and you're out where a yellow card is worth 2 fouls and a red card worth 4. Also, as an added incentive not to foul, I would award penalty kicks at the end of the game to the team with less total fouls - one kick for every four foul difference (something like free throws in basketball - only add it up at the end). The idea is to discourage goon-ism and get back to playing football. But, of course, I'm dreaming here - nothing that makes sense will ever be done.
  1. Karl Ortmertl
    commented on: June 29, 2012 at 7:15 a.m.
    In reading this, I should have made clear that there would be 1 point fouls for stuff that is a foul but isn't yellow or red cardable. All the little stuff now that's allowed because the ref doesn't think it merits a yellow card but that ruins the flow of the game. The poor sportsmen (thugs) take advantage of the lack of granularity in the fouling rules by constantly making "little" fouls that disrupt the flow and ruin the skillful aspects of the game. To me, it's such an obvious enhancement to what's going on now that it will never be done.
  1. Charles O'Cain
    commented on: June 30, 2012 at 3:38 p.m.
    If you two find so much objectionable to football as presently adjudicated and played, perhaps you should choose another, more "logical" sport and leave the present mess to us millions (or more probably billions) who are illogically more or less content with how it's evolving "naturally" . I don't think we need a committee of those who know what's "best" to make wholesale changes (larger goal, instant replay, fewer players, more substitutions, counting fouls, changing the offside rule, shot clock - just a few of the proposals I've seen put forward in these blogs/comments).

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