Each team still alive at this point of Euro 2012 has played three games against competition that was good enough to get to the Finals (via one route or another), and I think I've seen every team play at least once in the past 10 days, if not twice. So that's good enough to deliver some opinions as to what happens next, yeah?
Thursday: Czech Republic vs. Portugal
No one thought the Czechs would be here after they dropped their first game of Group Play to Russia 4-1. But they won their last two, and despite some defensive miscues (the goal they gave up to Greece was just embarrassing and demonstrated a potentially troubling lack of communication in the back) they've been pretty solid overall.
Portugal had a similar underdog vibe, despite the fact that Christiano Ronaldo is one of the most talented players in the world. His form at the World Stage has not been great of late, they were seen as the third most dangerous team in the Group of Death. But no one foresaw the Netherlands losing to Denmark and never properly recovering. What we saw over the past couple of weeks suggests that the Netherlands World Cup team in 2014 might be a youth movement of sorts. (certainly their thuggish defensive midfielders Van Bommel and De Jong are done, yes?)
A Youth Movement is basically what both the Czechs and Portugal have brought to the table--aside from a handful of players (like Ronaldo--27 years old!) both teams are full of guys that weren't on the team the last time they got this far along in a major tournament. That type of young energy breeds excitment--sometimes too much excitement. No offense to Václav Pilař, but there is no such thing as a Czech Lionel Messi. There is Messi, and then there is everyone else. Pilar isn't even the Czech Clint Dempsey. Not yet.
Players to watch: the aforementioned Ronaldo is an obvious pick, as is Pilař, but to me the course of this game might be determined by one of the few old guards in this game, and that is Petr Cech, the Czech Republic goalkeeper. I'll admit that Czech veterans Rosicky and Baros may figure in, but I'll be a bit surprised if they do. Portugal's offense has looked absolutely sublime at times, and this will be the best offense the Czechs have faced since Russia took them apart. The Czechs beat Poland and Greece a combined 3-1. The Portuguese have won their last two games a combined 5-3 (against Denmark and Holland). If the Portugal offense, with Ronaldo and Nani, is able to get behind the Czech defense like I think it might, Petr Cech is going to have to put aside his aspirations of becoming a Giant Version of Tosh.0 and have a big game. The good news for the Czechs is that he's absolutely capable of having a big game.
Prediction: Portugal 2, Czech Republic 1
Friday: Germany vs. Greece
It would take someone a hell of a lot ballsier than me to predict anything but German victory. The question to me is how big it will be. Can the Greeks really frustrate the Germans the way they did the Russians? The obvious answer to me is, "Nope. Not even a little bit."
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First of all, despite his appearance as a long suffering poet who just can't understand why people won't accept his genius, German coach Joachim Löw is in fact a genius. It isn't poetry (as far as any of us know). His genius is with soccer tactics. Even when Klinsmann was running this team, the whispers were that it was Löw who was behind the team's successful scheme. Klinsmann was often referred to as "talismanic" which is a nice way football writers call someone "a charismatic figurehead". I don't think that's fair to Klinsmann, but it says something that people bought into Löw that quickly.
Secondly, I don't think there is a team as talented, depth-wise, than the Germans. And yes, I'm including Spain. And based on the way Spain started this tournament (by attempting to start a formation without any strikers at all) the Spanish might agree.
I've never been a big believer in Mario Gomez, but something clicked in the past two years--he's shown all the skill that we started hearing about back in the day when he was supposed to to easily supplant Miroslav Klose. It took him awhile, but he has, with this tournament, proven that he is Germany's go-to finisher, and he's done it with a variety of touch, power and timing that I didn't think he had. One could argue he's been the best striker of the tournament. The Swedes might say, "Um, hello, pardon us, we don't wish to interrupt, and we certainly don't want to be rude in any way, but is it possible, by any chance, that you haven't seen the goal Zlatan scored? Just asking. Again, so sorry for interrupting."
My point is that Greece is very good at compressing a field, making the midfield touch passing that has become so popular in the wake of Spain's excellence very difficult. The Germans practically invented short technical passes, but even if that facet of their game should be stymied, they (unlike, say, Russia) will be able to adjust, and punish Greece via the old school drive up the flanks and cross to big strikers in the middle.
It is a simple fact of life, you see--if you choose to gum up short technical passes by jamming as many people as possible in the middle, the wings are therefore more open. And the Germans have some trigger men who can release the overlapping runs of Lahm and Boateng and apparently this kid Hummels.
They also have a number of midfielders capable of beating men one-on-one and ranging into dangerous areas all on their own--Podolski, Schweinstieger, Ozil. Hell, Toni Kroos would be starting for any number (that number, worldwide, would range in the dozens) of national teams, and he's their first midfielder off the bench.
If they were playing against a very dangerous offensive team, I'd warn that there was still some chance of upset, due to the aging of Lahm, and the still unsettled nature of Badstuber and Boateng in the back. Even then, I'd have to point out that Manuel Neuer is one of the finest goalkeepers left in the competition and that Mats Hummels has looked awfully good as a young central defender.
Oh, but Greece isn't particularly dangerous on offense. They advanced whilst scoring a grand total of 3 goals. The only way this isn't a much bigger rout on the field than it is on paper is if the Greeks somehow steal a goal early. If that happens, you can probably plan on seeing a defensive shell the likes of which you've never seen, and you can still plan on the Germans still scoring at least once. I think the dream scenario for the Greeks is penalty kicks, which they would probably still lose.
Players to watch: On Greece--no one. I don't mean that in a bad way. There's just no way they win based on an individual's greatness on that day. They win only if the entire team plays such a systematic shut down style that it manages to fluster Germans. On the German side, the obvious guy to look to is again Mario Gomez, but I also feel that Mesut Özil has been quiet so far, and he's capable of doing something awesome at any given moment.
Prediction: Germany 2, Greece 0