Just a few quick observations after the group stage of Euro 2008:
– Even when he isn’t scoring goals, Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly the best player in the world. For Portugal, you have to be aware of where he is at all times. Because he has the freedom to roam wherever he wants he is extremely hard to close down, and that opens up a lot of attacking options for the Portuguese, especially for Joao Moutinho, Simao and Deco. The lone target man, Nuno Gomes, is practially useless.
– Gotta give it to Turkey. They took advantage of a weak draw past Portugal to upend a weak Swiss side and a Czech team that just doesn’t have the cojones to close out their opponents. Nihat Kahveci and Arda Turan are hitting their attacking and finishing stride, but I just don’t like their defense from here on out.
– Thier first fixture against Austria notwithstanding, which they just mailed in, Croatia looks mighty good. Especially in the back, where they are closing down the center and the penalty area. Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic are getting it done going forward, and to my surprise the Kovac brothers still have something left in the tank.
– Lukas Podolski aside, Germany are looking mighty pedestrian. I don’t like Mario Gomez at all as Miroslav Klose’s strike partner. They need to move Podolski back up front to partner with Klose, and put Bastien Schweinsteiger back on the left flank. Because they screwed up a group they should have won easily, they now get an in-form Portugal in the next round. Joachim Loew just doesn’t have Jurgen Klinsmann’s ability to light a fire under them.
– Austria was the worst team I have ever seen in an international tournament of this magnitude EVER! Gawd they were stultifyingly horrendous. Clearly hosting was the only way they were going to get here.
– Shed no tears for France. I never liked Ramon Domminech as a coach, they had no ability to create anything going forward, they were predictable as hell, and they weren’t very good at closing down their own penalty area. They have finally reached the point where they need to blow their team up entirely and start from scratch.
– Holland looks like the best team so far. To watch them run all day and create space for themselves, especially on the counterattack, is to watch Da Vinci create the Mona Lisa. They took apart everybody in the group that was supposed to be the weakest, and even ran Romania off the pitch with reserves in a fixture that meant nothing to them. Marco van Basten finally got his midfield involved, which is why they finally are scoring goals in bunches. I’m still not big on Ruud van Nistelrooy as their target man; I think they are better served with Klaas Jan Huntelaar. But to me the best player in the tournament is this new defensive midfielder and distributor they have, Orlando Engelaar. He is closing down the opposition attack before it gets to the backline, and is a fantastic linkup to the wingers and attackers going forward. I don’t know much about him and this tournament is the first I’m hearing about him, but he is clearly a find.
– Italy is clearly much better served with Daniel De Rossi and Antonio Cassano on the attacking wings servicing lone target man Luca Toni than Mauro Camoranesi and Antonio Di Natale, and in their last fixture against France it showed. Better coordination and service going forward. This has the added benefit of letting Gianlucca Zambrotta concentrate on defending a little more, which is why they are doing a much better job of closing down their own penalty area. It will be interesting to see if Roberto Donadoni keeps this up in the knockout stage. I’m conflicted about Luca Toni, thought; massive target man who can get his head on the ball in the box and certainly takes his chances but is decidedly lacking in other ball skills.
– As with Portugal, Spain is very, very deep. They too put on nothing but reserves in their last group fixture against Greece and came away with full points. They spread the ball around very well, a good at creating chances, and ya gotta love David Villa as a finisher. Good direct attacking quality from midfielders Marcos Senna and David Silva. Still, I just get the feeling that they are one Sergio Ramos brain-fart away from screwing it up — and given their enigmatic history of crashing out of every tournament they’ve been in despite their talent, I don’t think I’m far off the mark here.
– Proof positive that one player can make all the difference in the world: Andrei Arshavin. Without him Russia can’t create anything going forward to save their lives (their victory over a weak, overrated Greece notwithstanding; everybody beat up on the Greeks this time out). With him they are Holland. If you saw them run circles around Sweden then you know what I’m talking about. With Arshavin they are so much better that the attack opens up for target man Roman Pavluchenko to become a scoring machine. We really shouldn’t be surprised, thought; this is a Guus Hiddink-led team — he just knows how to get even a side with mediocre overall talent to the knockout stages.
– Sweden has to get a lot more from their target men than what Zlatan Ibrahimovic has to offer. He is inconsistent as hell, and it says a lot that 37-year-old Henrik Larsson was a more consistent finisher. Furthermore, I don’t know what Lars Lagerbeck was thinking by having so many of his players play back in a fixture they needed just a tie from when they knew the Russians were going to attack them like the siege of Stalingrad (like the symmetry there?). As I’ve said before, Sweden just isn’t served well with Lagerbeck at the helm. He is too willing to settle for mediocrity from a side that is much better than that.
– Now for the knockout stages. The beauty of the European Championship is that it is as unpredictable as any competition on the planet. With that in mind, here goes. As long as Luis Felipe Scolari is coach, Portugal are going to go deep in any tournament they are in, so take them in an ugly game against Germany. Turkey is tailor made for Croatia, who won’t choke like the Czechs. Call it a hunch, but I’m going to say that the upset of the tournament will be Russia over Holland — for whatever reason Russia historically really plays well in this tournament. The closest match in the quarters in Italy-Spain; call me stupid, I just think that Spain has screwed it up so much so often that they will just figure out a way to lose in a penalty shootout. In the semis, Portugal just has too much bite and fight for Croatia; Italy brings Russia’s dreams crashing down. It all ends on the final Sunday of June with Portugal finally winning their first international tournament — something they should have done four years ago at home — the last thing Big Phil Scolari does for them before taking over Chelsea.