The Group Stage of the 2012 European Championships has ended. Eight teams remain, and now the tournament shifts into knockout mode. Let's applaud this now-departed phase of the tourney: All the matches had at least one goal — a rare occurrence. It means that all the teams were trying to win every match. Brilliant!
Group A ended quite different from my prediction in my prior update. Previous table-toppers Russia crashed to defeat against Greece, leaving them in 3rd place.The seemingly talent-shy Czechs, who were crushed in their first group match by Russia, finished first with six points. And the much-maligned Greeks claimed second spot with four points. Co-host Poland's players are now spectators after stuttering to a halt with only two points (out of a possible nine).
Group B's finale saw Germany finish top with nine points out of nine. Second place, which hung dramatically in the balance during Sunday's matches, went to Portugal on six points after wins against Denmark and the Netherlands. Denmark gamely fell to Germany, finishing 3rd, while Holland goes home having earned no points at all.
Group C also provided drama, at one point presenting the possibility of a 3rd-place finish for Spain. But when the dust settled, Spain had defeated Croatia to claim the group with seven points. Italy succeeded in their bid to finish second with five points after a tough but deserved victory over last-place Ireland. Valiant Croatia goes home in third place with four points.
The conclusion of match play in Group D was also surprising. Brand-new head coach Roy Hodgson (having taken over May 1, 2012) surprisingly led England to a first-place finish with seven points. Talented but anxious France lost in embarrassing fashion to Sweden but still claimed second spot with four points. Shed a tear for Ukraine, who had a valid goal against England discounted through uncertain officiating, and played better than their 3rd place finish suggests.
The first match of the quarterfinal round will pit the Czech Republic against Portugal starts Thursday at 2:45 p.m. ESPN will broadcast the game to local television audiences. Online viewers can find the game available online at ESPN3. Goalkeeper Petr Cech of the Czechs (sorry) is arguably their only world-class player, yet here they are. The Portuguese counter with their own world-class player: Cristiano Ronaldo. In his prime, Ronaldo scored of over 60 goals for his club team this past season, will hope to put Cech to the test. Expect the Czechs to fight and defend gamely, but Portugal will probably overcome them. Prediction: Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic.
Germany meest Greece in the second quarterfinal match June 22 at 2:45 p.m.; televised on ESPN and available online at ESPN3. On paper, this is a walkover for a German team whose substitutes – let alone their starters - appear far more talented than Greece's starting 11. However, Greece has repeatedly proved over the years that grit, energy and defensive solidity can win matches against even the best opponents. I am wary of the Greeks but believe their run in the tournament comes to a crashing halt. Prediction: Germany 4-1 Greece.
The third quarterfinal match is the spiciest: Spain vs. France on June 23 at 2:45 p.m.; televised on ESPN2 and available online at ESPN3. The Spaniards' ability to score seemingly at will appears intact, but their defense looks a little bit suspect. Meanwhile, France has shown both dominance (a 2-0 win against Ukraine) and meekness (a 2-0 loss to Sweden. It will be interesting, especially if France's sublime striker Karim Benzema finds his shooting boots, but Spain should prevail. Prediction: Spain 3-2 France.
The English meet the Italians in the final quarterfinal match on June 24 at 2:45 p.m. local time; televised on ESPN and available online at ESPN3). Not much was expected of England coming into this tournament, but here they are in the round of 8. Main-man Wayne Rooney is back from suspension and the team appears to have gelled quite well under Hodgson's guidance. The Italians have looked strong in each match, showing attacking potency and defensive power.They may have lost top-class defender Chiellini to injury, so there might be a chink in the armor for England to exploit. Prediction: Italy 2-2 England, Italy win on penalties.