44 Years Of Choking, Beautifully Erased

Kudos to Spain, as La Furia Roja won the European Championship, without losing or tying once, by thoroughly defeating Germany (well, as thorough as a 1-nil victory can be) despite these factors:

1) The atrocious refereeing of Roberto Rosetti. The ref ignored very chippy shots at the ankles by Germany’s captain Michael Ballack all through the match and only carded him after he and Spanish captain Iker Casillas were squabbling over the ref’s refusal to card Ballack for those chip shots. Ballack made it very, very easy to crack the old Swingers jokes when he got a gash on his head before halftime.

2) Their own coach. One could argue the old racist Luis Aragones plays a huge part in getting these players over the hump, and there’s something to be said for that. But vacillating for the whole time on where Cesc Fabregas would play and pulling Fernando Torres (who scored the game’s only goal) for Dani Guiza repeatedly was a serious gamble.

Regardless, the Spanish are champions, rightfully so — having been the best playing team throughout the tournament, not losing or drawing a game, being the only group winner to make it through the quarterfinals, etc. — and it could have been much, much worse for Germany, who came out and played completely uninspired out there. Ballack didn’t do much else outside of chip at ankles in ways that earn most people recruiting letters to play on Auburn’s O-line; Miroslav Klose was just denied time and time again, and the only player with any energy for them was Bastian “Pig Mounter” Schweinsteiger.

It’s a shame that Marcos Senna couldn’t finish the goal chance he had late, because he was really one of the big reasons Spain won. The defensive mid shut down both Andrei Arshavin and Ballack in the last two games. He, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena, and Joan Capdevila kept the opposing attackers out of sorts — Klose was never in the game, Kiranyi was an ineffective sub, Gomez has been useless for the Germans — and proved that good defense doesn’t have to be at the expense of fun football. It would have been more fun if Torres’ first header off the post had gone in and Senna’s chance had too — it was really a 3 or 4 goal game couched in a 1-0 win.

It’s still good to see attacking football rewarded with a championship, even if the final game wasn’t that great overall.

Photo: Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images

Former Fascists Beat Former Commies To Play More Former Fascists

I kid because I love, Spain.

Seriously, I love Spain. I love watching them. It’s nice to see a couple of good, solid, attacking teams in the final of a major soccer tournament. Hard to lose either way, but my sympathy lies with the Spaniards. Ridiculously deep everywhere but the back four on defense and armed with one of the top keepers in captain Iker Casillas, they dispatched Russia easily in yesterday’s semi despite losing striker David Villa to injury for the rest of the tournament on a free kick.

This is because coach Luis Aragones can go to a 4-5-1 with Cesc Fabregas, and it works. So much of the debate for the Spanish was where to start Fabregas at, who would he replace?  Andres Iniesta and Xavi were the prime candidates until they hooked up for the first goal past Russia’s Igor Akinfeev. David Silva has had flashes of great play (none better than the goal he took on a pass from Cesc that made it 3-0, Fabregas’ other assist was to Dani Guiza.)  Marcos Senna has to be there for a defensive mid presence — he locked down on Andrei Arshavin big time.

The debate is moot with Villa out — Cesc will start, and Fernando Torres will be the sole striker up front. So how does this leave them against the Germans? The problem is that Germany is ridiculously well set up with a height advantage and the talent of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslave Klose, and Michael Ballack for power.  It looks like they can take advantage of the height differential, like they did in the quarters with the Portuguese. However, Casillas is a damn sight better in goal than Ricardo, and if Spain can take control of a few set players on the offensive end, Jens Lehmann can be a liability if the defenders get beat.

Germany had to orchestrate a comeback on a debilitated Turkish squad and barely pulled out a victory in regulation. I’m going with a high scoring pick: Madrid will welcome home its warriors in Red with a 4-2 victory on Sunday.

Photo: AP/Jon Super

The Footy Gods Frown Upon Divers

Thankfully for FIFA and Euro 2008 in general, Spain’s Iker Casillas came up money in the PK stage twice today against the Italians as a nil-nil match turned into a 4-2 PK win for the Iberians.  The Italians make football cry — theirs is a brand only second to the Greeks in terms of defensive hard-headedness and boredom for anyone who dares watch. The Spanish not only had to overcome that, but the lousy job the German referee did — ignoring Italian diving and acting jobs, making the Spanish side kick the ball out of bounds on some of these Oscar-worthy performances (always when the Spanish had numbers), and yellow cards for fouls that were not called when the Italians did the exact same thing.

They also had to overcome coach Luis Aragones’ own insane decisions — like waiting so long to bring on Cesc Fabregas, who wound up hitting the final PK — and subbing out Fernando Torres with Daniel Guiza, who not only made a couple of bonehead plays (like playing a cross with his arms), but fucked up his PK badly, resulting in an easy save for Gianluigi Buffon (the only Italian player I can at least have some respect for; he’s truly an elite keeper.)

So now, we’ve got the semis ahead of us, and one game looks exciting while the other looks like a foregone conclusion:

Germany-Turkey – The Turks’ luck is probably going to run out here because they have four players out for yellow card suspensions and five others injured (striker Nihat Khaveci being the latest, and out for the rest of the tournament). Keeper Volkan Demirel is still out as well, leaving Rustu Recber (who did a great job against the Croats on PKs and in the match in general) with a decimated hodge-podge of a squad in front of him. If Fatim Terih can find a line-up that will at least keep it close with the Germans’ attacking firepower, I will be impressed.

Spain-Russia – A match of two teams with their own transfer darlings: David Villa still holds the lead for the most goals in the tourney and Andrei Arshavin is now drawing serious interest after the Russians mounted their extra time defeat of the Dutch yesterday by totally aping their all-attack style.  Russia holds a defensive advantage, as Spain’s back line always seems to take some risky moves, but Casillas is an obvious advantage in goal. I am openly rooting for the Spanish, and hoping Aragones can stay out of his own way with the line-up. Honestly, why is Cesc Fabregas not starting, and after watching Guiza, in what way should he ever be allowed to sub for Torres again?

The Similarities Are Striking

I was shooting the shit in The Big Lead’s thread for Euro 2008 during Germany’s quarterfinal defeat of Portugal (which I completely fucked up on my prediction because I didn’t account for the Iberian Peninsula dwellers’ shitty concept of defense, particularly on set pieces), and one of the commenters described Portugal as overrated with one superstar, a mediocre striker, and a bunch of similar wing players who don’t defend well.

Sounds familiar, and it’s not all too far off from something we might be more familiar with, as this bears more than a similarity to the Los Angeles Lakers. Let’s look at this bit by bit (and feel free to tear this apart, since this is hastily considered and from someone with very little soccer knowledge):

  • Cristiano Ronaldo is Kobe, obviously — most talented player in his sport, also often the most petulant and whiny about foul calls.  This dichotomy of brilliance and arrogance is both attractive and off-putting.
  • Nuno Gomes and Deco can trade the Odom and Gasol roles back and forth. It depends on the match. Gomes isn’t the regular ideal of a striker to begin with (see Pau and lack of physical play inside) and had been just about non-existent in Euro 2008 until he got a score off a Ronaldo deflection down 2-0. Deco pulled an Odom against Germany, just completely ineffective and disappeared after two games where he was a big part of the attack. (He’s better than this in club matches, even though he had a lousy season with FC Barcelona last year in La Liga.)
  • Nani could be a Bynum-like fount of developing potential. The pass he made to Postiga to make it 3-2 late was some nice work.
  • It’s a stretch to line up Pepe and Ricardo with Vlad Radmanovic, but both showed an active lack of defending (Ricardo gambles so much in goal) and Pepe absolutely blew a wide open shot in the first half.
  • The rest of the squad seems to consist of a lot of individually talented mids and drop-back guys who aren’t coordinated as a team.

Someone else in the thread went for the Cavaliers comparison, but for that to work, there would need to be absolutely nothing around CR7. Deco is talented and knows how to play; Gomes can score if he works for it; there are talented guys on that team, but they just cannot put it together right now to match the talent they have on hand against a bigger and steadier team like the Germans.

Of course, Moleman then lined up by saying that Spain are the Mavs (loaded with talent, choke early), Germany is the Spurs (ruthlessly efficient, talented, occasionally dull, but always in it), and the Dutch are the Nuggets (no defense). We’ll see if that holds.

It’s Quarterfinals Time at Euro ’08

We have to note that none only two more of the matches from here on out will feature our new favorite Scot, Andy Gray, on color commentary; Derek Rae and the old leprechaun Tommy Smyth will be calling the rest of the games, it looks like. I presume Gray will be in the studio with Rece Davis and Julie Foudy, but it seems a waste. I know Tommy Smyth has rank on Gray in the Bristol hierarchy but the fact that the last two days of matches will be the last of Andy is somewhat less than fair. My personal favorite was when Gray and Rae were calling a match on Sunday, and this exchange happened:

Rae: “Derek Rae and Andy Gray here with you for Euro 2008. The two Scots are here, even though the Scottish team is not, but that’s okay.”
Gray: “Speak for yourself!”

Update: I totally boned this up originally. I thought Andy Gray and Adrian Healy were done calling games. Awful Announcing tells us this is not the case! Hooray! (Although I would really prefer teaming up Rae and Gray as the A-team.

Nothing like trying to cut through brogue to translate. Anyway, on to the match-ups (all games at 11:45 AM Pacific)

Portugal vs. Germany (Today)

The Germans were expected to roll right through their group and not even be in a position to have to see the Portuguese until the semis. An abject failure from Joachim Low’s strikers (we have an APB out for Klose, Miroslav, and Gomez, Mario, that is an All Points Bulletin) contributed to a loss to group winner Croatia and they needed a Michael Ballack free-kick score against Austria to get over the hump. Given the injury troubles of Lukas Podolski and the non-existence of the strikers, I’m not inclined to bet against Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo. This is a match-up of teams with shitty strikers (Nuno Gomes appears to be a joke for Big Phil’s squad); I give the edge to the team with the best player in the world.

Turkey vs. Croatia (Friday)

Yes, the Turks are down a goalie on a dumb red card given to Volkan in stoppage time in their second comeback against the Czech Republic in group play, but I’m not willing to tack against a team that’s made two comebacks with tenacious defense and the way the midfield and forwards have played against the gun late. Croatia will have to take them out first.

Netherlands vs. Russia (Saturday)

Russia made 2-0 mincemeat of a Swedish squad apparently unable to generate offensive opportunities unless they are off the foot of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and got themselves a date with the Netherlands on Friday, which brings Guus Hiddink against his native country (and the national team he used to helm). This Dutch team is too damn loaded on the offensive end (when Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are your big bench guys, you’re talented) with guys like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Giovanni van Bronckhurst, Wesley Sneijder (who scored the prettiest goal of the tourney so far), and Dirk Kuyt (whom Kanu labeled “the best no-talent footballer in the world.”) The Oranje face no serious test unless they make the finals.

Spain vs. Italy (Sunday)

The Spanish have taken to calling themselves “Los Punas” to reflect their choking streaks in Euro and World Cup competition. Not this round, though. Spain has a lousy backline of defenders right now able to make a boneheaded move defensively at any point. That said, it’s incumbent upon Italy actually scoring. Luca Toni hasn’t shown up yet and I think Alessando del Pietro is out this game. To advance, the Azzuri wil need another outstanding game in goal from Gianluigi Buffon, and Spain has way too much firepower up front this time.

David Villa Just Increased His Transfer Fee Even More

The Spanish are flashing form that they always show in opening rounds before their defensive backline starts becoming a liability in knockout rounds.  If you liked action by strikers and other up-front men, then this was your kind of game: the regulation time goals came from Fernando Torres and Zultan Ibrahimovic in the first half, and then it became a battle until stoppage time — when a catastrophic defensive breakdown by the Swedes left David Villa with a dribble move and a shot over a goalie in the splits for his fourth goal of the tourney and a 2-1 game winner in the 92nd minute. Roman Abramovich is trying to figure out just how much he’s going to have to shell out to get Villa to Chelsea for the next club season.

(Grazie, Real Clear Sports.)

Adrian Healy obviously was unaware of the American slang meaning of “Dutch oven” when he uttered his line about it and the French being toast, but after a 4-1 curb stomping that left French coach Raymond Domenech consulting the cards to see in advance how the French papers would be challenging his football intelligence and striker Thierry Henry wondering how many clean chances he could botch, the Dutch are on a mission to revive the “Total Football” ideal they had in the 70s.  To my untrained and undeveloped eye, the Dutch have had some of the best looking goals of the entire tourney — Wesley Sneijder’s artistry from the first game against Italy is the best example. However, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s amazing dribble work on keeping the ball in to get it from Arjen Robben to the foot of Robin van Persie was nuts, as was Robben’s subsequent goal at a disgustingly sharp angle that normal footballers wouldn’t even hit post on. Sneijder added another goal after that, and let’s not forget Dirk Kuyt’s well-timed first half header off the corner kick.  The Dutch have a Spaniard’s attitude about defense right now, but we’ll see if it hurts them — either way, the Group of Death is theirs.

Another aside note: I love Andy Gray, not only because of the “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap” mantra, but because he just took no prisoners in calling out Henry for not making a chance or two in the second half, going so far as to say, “I mean, I’ve played the game and I know how difficult it is to score, but there’s no excuse for missing that.”

Italy’s hopes are only alive because keeper Gianluigi Buffon made an amazing save on an Adrian Mutu penalty kick in the second half, despite looking crisper and keeping a better handle on the action for most of the game with Romania.  Mutu had scored earlier in the second half, quickly followed a minute later by Italy’s Christian Panucci — but the Azzuri had so many more chances off the heads and feet of Luca Toni and Alessandro del Piero that should have at least gone on goal.

I Do Not Know This Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese winger is, undoubtedly, the best player in the world, but for those of us that make a habit of watching the Premiership, Cristiano Ronaldo is quite possibly one of the most loathsome figures when it comes to club soccer: Pardon me for quoting my own Twitter feed from a recent Arsenal-Man U match regarding his compulsive preening habits: “C. Ronaldo = dribble, juke, get challenged, fall, whine to referee.” Largely, this has not changed since 2003, as this little illustration demonstrates.

But the Ronaldo that plays the midfield for Portugal — well, I don’t recognize him. It’s got a 7 on its jersey, there’s a “Ronaldo” on the back, but he scored a goal and assisted on another late in Portugal’s 3-1 win over the Czech Republic, and not once when he was fouled, did he go and bitch to the ref. Might I actually have to respect and root for the best player to win?

Perish the fucking thought. I’m still pulling for Spain despite the fact that they really have no defense, but if Luiz Felipe Scolari can exercise his Big Phil act on goalkeeper Ricardo and keep him in the fucking box at the right time, then they’ll at least make the semis.

(By the way: I give Big Phil less than two years at Chelski. Abramovich will want a new toy after they miss out on another couple of Champions League titles.)

The Czechs will have to duke it out with Turkey, and this is a problem because the only offensive player who appears to be at full bore for the Republic is Libor Sionko, who headed in the sole Czech goal yesterday. The Turks officially sent Switzerland home, overcoming a deficit (Hakan Yakin scored for the Swiss) via goals from Semih Senturk and Arda Turin (the last one coming in stoppage.)

It’s hard to give two shits about the Turks, but at least they play exciting football — although it’s hard not to be at least entrancing when the first half is played on a pitch that looked similar to the Heinz Field mess during Monday Night Football last year.

Now, if someone could explain to me how an English footballer named Colin Richards becomes a Turkish middie named Kazim Kazim (although his uni says “C. Kazim” and the BBC has referred to him as Kazim-Richards), that would be nice.