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Euro 2012: Semi-finals Preview

On the 8th June, the 2012 European Championships began with 16 teams. Just 16 days later, we are now down to four. Holders and pre-tournament favourites Spain have safely negotiated their way to the semi-finals, as have the much fancied Germans. A Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal are also one of the final four, a quartet completed by Italy. Both semi-finals provide intriguing matchups but four must become two.

Spain vs. Portugal (27th June, Donbass Arena, Donetsk)

Spain are the defending champions and favourites to win the title, but so far have not looked at their fluid best. Following a 1-1 draw with an impressive Italian side in the first round of group games, Spain went on to defeat Ireland 4-0 and Croatia 1-0 to top the group. Both Italy and Croatia had sufficient opportunities to defeat Vicente del Bosque’s men and so their cloak of invincibility has disappeared somewhat. They controlled the quarter final against France and thanks to two Xabi Alonso goals, progressed without too much difficulty. That said, France offered little in attack and when they did, the Spaniards did not always look comfortable. Del Bosque himself commented that they looked jaded and it is hard to disagree.

Much has been made of their decision to play without a recognised striker and as I predicted in my pre-tournament blog, they have undoubtedly missed David Villa. At times, their midfield has looked overcrowded, particularly when Cesc Fabregas (the player most suited to playing in a central advanced role) has been left out.

They have however, showed their much-vaunted passing game and continue to monopolise possession in games. When they do lose it, they work harder than any other team to win it back by pressing high up the field. This makes them very difficult to beat and I do believe Portugal will struggle against them.

In their first group game against Germany, Portugal put in one of the worst performances by a supposed big team in a major tournament that I can ever remember. They were ultra-defensive, using three holding midfielders and I thought ‘this is Portugal from the 2010 World Cup all over again.’ They improved in the second group game against Denmark, but looked defensively poor in an entertaining 3-2 win. It was in the final group game against the Netherlands that they really came to life or, more precisely, that Cristiano Ronaldo came to life. He had had numerous golden opportunities versus Denmark but had uncharacteristically failed to convert them and so the pressure was on. Against de Oranje he seemed to thrive on that pressure, scoring both Portuguese goals and firing his team to progression from the Group of Death. So, all in all a mixed bag from Portugal in the group stage, but with an in-form Ronaldo, they looked odds on to beat surprise quarter finalists, Czech Republic. Ronaldo did not disappoint, once again being something of a one-man show (although it should be noted that Joao Moutinho played well in the centre of midfield). The Real Madrid man scored the only goal of the game to put his side in to the semi-final, but in truth it could, and probably should, have been more against a very defensive Czech side.

The worry for Portugal is that they are extremely reliant on their star man. Nani looked off the pace against the Czechs and Miguel Veloso was simply awful. Raul Meireles has offered little and they still struggle for a striker, a situation that will not be helped by an injury to first choice Helder Postiga. For the Portuguese to have any chance Ronaldo will have to have the game of his life and others will need to improve too. I do however, feel Spain will dominate possession and they have the quality to expose Portugal’s defensive frailty. This is most evident in the wide areas with Coentrao looking very much like the converted winger he is. Del Bosque may be tempted to introduce Jesus Navas at some point as he offers natural width and searing pace. Spain’s possession game will lead to a frustrated Ronaldo, who will have to go looking for the ball. This will mean he is not at his most effective.

Sport Report Prediction: Spain win

Germany vs. Italy (28th June, National Stadium, Warsaw)

Germany were many people’s favourites going in to this tournament and from what we have seen so far, it is not difficult to understand why. They have played their usual brand of attacking football with great tempo and even when this was made extremely difficult by a super-defensive Portugal, they found a way to win. That way was Mario Gomez. Against Paulo Bento’s men, he had one chance and he found the net. In tournament football, such a striker is gold dust. Gomez again found the net against the Dutch, scoring two magnificent goals and proving his doubters wrong in the process. He has seen little playing time since, but given his ability to finish, must surely be in line to start in the semi final. Bastian Schweinsteiger has ably dictated the pace of games from midfield, while Mesut Özil has provided his usual creative magic. Sami Khedira has been, in my opinion, the best player at the tournament so far and showed against Greecet hat he can even score. Germany made the so-called Group of Death look easy; winning it with maximum points, but it was the Greece game that showed the quality of their squad as Jogi Löw brought in Andre Schürrle, Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose. The latter two both scored. Only Spain can boast similar strength in depth and so the Germans will be very difficult to beat.

There are still question marks defensively however, and Italy will feel that if they can test Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, they may get some joy. Manuel Neuer has been called in to action on several occasions and the fact that the Greeks netted twice in the quarter-final shows that the Nationalelf are not invincible.

Before the tournament I predicted that Italy, a country to which I have an attachment (my grandmother is Italian), would go out in the group stage. They came in to the competition on the back of three consecutive defeats to nil and with their game engulfed in yet another match fixing scandal, it just seemed like they would be on their way home early. How wrong I was. They have looked extremely well organised and Andrea Pirlo has proved that class is permanent by controlling game after game with his metronomic passing.

The Italians could have beaten Spain in the first game of the group stage and looked fantastic for 45 minutes against Croatia before fading badly. They did enough against Ireland without pulling up any trees, but they dominated England in the quarter final and should not have required penalties to progress. The reason they did was poor finishing and this is a potential problem for Italy. Pirlo is to Italy what Xavi is to Spain but like the Spaniards, Italy are lacking a top class forward. For whatever reason, Cesare Prandelli will not start with Antonio Di Natale and we all know how infuriatingly inconsistent Mario Balotelli is Against Germany, they will not get the chances they got against England and so they will need Balotelli to be more composed in front of goal.

Pirlo is the key for the Azzurri as absolutely everything goes through him. England allowed him the freedom of Kyiv and he punished them. Germany will not. Sami Khedira will likely be the man tasked with harrying the Italian maestro and it will be interesting to see how the Italians try to stop Germany’s own orchestrator, Bastian Schweinsteiger. That midfield battle will be where the game is won and lost.

I do, however, feel that Germany will just have too much for Italy. Özil, Podolski, Gomez, Müller etc. as well as the potential substitutes available to Löw will be the difference. Italysimply do not have such attacking riches and I feel that this will ultimately prove to be the difference.

Sport Report Prediction: Germany win

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