The quarterfinals stage of the European Championships concluded Sunday. One-a-day matches since last Thursday featured winners of the past four championship title holders: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Three of those teams will survive to play in the 2012 semi-finals — sorry, France.
Here is how the matches stacked up:
Actual Score: Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic
Kingsworthy'spregame prediction: Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic
This match was actually more one-sided than I had expected it would be. After a strong opening 20 minutes, the Czechs sat back and allowed Portugal to dominate possession. In soccer-football as in American football, possession leads to scoring chances. So Portugal had chances, but only one was converted. A fast counter-attack gave Portugal's playmaker Moutinho a chance to cross the ball into the danger area near PetrCech's goal. Bulky striker Almeida missed the chance but this served to distract defenders from the predatory presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who snuck into the area for a headed goal past Cech. This was all Portugal needed as the Czech had no attacking threat. Not a surprising result, considering the Czech Republic had won a weak group while Portugal had survived the "'Group of Death" in second place.
Actual Score: Germany 4-2 Greece
Kingsworthy's pregame prediction: Germany 4-1 Greece
The result wasn't actually as surprising as the way in which it was achieved. Germany had won the "'Group of Death" quite comfortably using a formation laden with Bayern Munich players. But coach Joachim Loew was reportedly disappointed with their efforts in the last group match — as well as in training sessions between matches — and replaced three of his starters for this quarterfinal clash with Greece. Perhaps the changes were tactical, in order to exploit Greece's weakness in midfield and attack. But to make major changes to a winning side is considered extremely risky and is usually avoided. The fact that they did this and still won comfortably shows the strength of depth in the German side. They have multiple weapons in the team and can apparently change them in and out without missing a beat. As for Greece, winners in 2004, they can take comfort in the notion that they may have lost to the best team in the tournament.
Actual Score: Spain 2-0 France
Kingsworthy's pregame prediction: Spain 3-2 France
Considering how limply France performed in the final Group Stage match against Sweden, perhaps this result should not at all have been unexpected. Everyone knew that Spain would score in this match — it can be assumed they will score multiple goals in every match. But France has enough talent to have given Spain more of a fight. I suppose they never came to grips with the idea of playing without the ball. They are, like Spain, more comfortable in possession. When Spain doesn't have the ball, they press their opponents expertly in order to win it back. France is not nearly as good at winning it back, and consequently they saw much less of the ball. So the match that appeared to be the most interesting beforehand might have, in the end, been the opposite.
Italy 0-0 England, Italy wins 4-2 on penalties
Kingsworthy's pregame prediction: Italy 2-2 England, Italy win on penalties 4-2
I definitely expected goals galore from this encounter. Both teams are capable of scoring, and both are potentially vulnerable defensively. But Italy dominated possession while denying service to England danger-man Wayne Rooney.A gain, possession usually leads to chances, and the Italians had plenty of chances to score against England.However, their shooting accuracy was poor, and when they were on target, England goalkeeper Joe Hart spared England's blushes (i.e. saved their bacon). Thus the contest stretched into extra time — completely bossed by the still wayward-shooting Italians — and then penalties. Shooting penalties to decide a match is considered primitive, an unfortunate and embarrassing way to find a winner; we have no choice but to accept them as a necessary evil. Regardless, they are nerve-wracking, and in the end, the Italians held their nerve better than the English to prevail.
So, now onto the semi-finals!
Semi-final #1:Spain vs. Portugal
ESPN, 2:45 p.m., June 27
Portugal enters the semi-finals on a good run, scoring seven goals in four matches and only failing to win against top-tier Germany 1-0. Their defense appears sound, their possession game is good, and their confidence is up. They also happen to have one of the very best players in the world — Cristiano Ronaldo, the strong, speedy and clever mega-striker who plies his trade for Spain club champions Real Madrid. However, Portugal's opponents are no pushovers. Spain is not the reigning World and European champion for nothing. As mentioned above, they are experts at both possession and re-possession (winning the ball back). Portugal does not have the ability to challenge them in this area. Counter-attacks and set pieces (e.g. corner kicks, free kicks etc.), probably through Ronaldo's ability to carry the ball close to an opponent's goal, are the only real hope Portugal has at digging out a win or a draw. I don't believe the Portuguese will stop their Iberian neighbors from scoring enough to win. Prediction: Spain 3-1 Portugal
Semi-final #2: Germany vs. Italy
ESPN, 2:45 p.m., June 28
Germany's march to the semi-finals match has been comfortable, the team never really having had to shift their play into top gear. This should be ominous for an Italian side, which has only scored four goals in as many matches. Once again, a German victory appears inevitable. Setting aside for the moment the typical notion of strong Italian defensive tactics, the one real X-factor for the Italians is their unpredictability. They create chances a number of different ways: Measured build-up, quick passing with a chip over the top, sometimes even using long-ball tactics to get the ball past their opponent's defensive shield are a few of the approaches available to them. If they can catch Germany in possession near their goal — and get shots on target — they might have a chance to grab a lead in the match. For the Germans, it's a simple matter of scoring goals and keeping their own goal unbreached. I think Italy might steal a goal or two, but the Germans will score more, even against the defensively talented Italians. Prediction: Germany 2-1 Italy
The showdowns are set, the tensions build even higher and excitement grows to a fever pitch. Each of these teams would be a worthy finalist. I think it will be Germany and Spain, the two best teams at the tournament, at least on paper. Who will reach the July 1 final match? Watch the matches Wednesday and Thursday to find out!