Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mario Balotelli answered the call on Thursday evening in Warsaw.  After drawing criticism for squandering several chances earlier in the tournament, Balotelli buried two opportunities in the first half today, to lift Italy to a stunning 2-1 victory over tournament co-favorites Germany.  

Italy came into the match marked by most as underdogs, but they had not conceded a goal in over 200 minutes of competition, since conceding to Croatia in their opening match of the tournament.  Their defense remained strong in the early stages of the match, determined to carry out the tactic of isolating Germany's Mesut Ozil from his teammates.  Joachim Low opted to play Tony Kroos in place of the previously favored Thomas Muller and it may have cost him in the end, despite Muller featuring for the final twenty minutes of the match.

Italy's first strike came off of an excellent turn by Antonio Cassano followed by a cross sent in from the left. Mario Balotelli elevated over Holger Badstuber and headed it past Manuel Neuer for the opening goal.  It was a great break that began with a splendid pass from Andrea Pirlo, who continued his midfield dominance in this match.  Balotelli celebrated his goal by embracing his teammates, particularly Cassano, who could not have played a better cross.  

In the ensuing minutes after the goal, Germany enjoyed the majority of the chances and forced several saves from Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon.  Despite appearing shaky in the early stages of the match, and nearly conceding if not for the poise of Andrea Pirlo guarding the post, Buffon regained his composure and turned in a spectacular performance in the Italian goal.  Buffon's best save came against Sami Khedira on a blast from outside the penalty area that Buffon was just able to push wide with an outstretched hand.

The decisive break came for Italy just three minutes after Khedira's thwarted blast.  Ricardo Montolivo found Mario Balotelli alone in space behind the German defense.  The Manchester City striker accepted the ball with ease, built up speed, and then unleashed an emphatic blast that found the upper corner of the goal.  Manuel Neuer was helpless to prevent the goal and was rooted to the spot, the second time this evening he found himself in that predicament.  Balotelli received a yellow card for removing his shirt in celebration, but he will not miss the final as a result of accrued cards.

Following the halftime break, Joachim Low substituted striker Mario Gomez in favor of Marco Reus.  Reus nearly provided his manager with a saving goal, coming off a free kick in the 62nd minute, but once again Gigi Buffon rose to the occasion and parried the shot over the net.  Following that moment, Germany looked increasingly desperate.  Their main service came from the wings in the form of desperate crosses that never found their mark and were easily dealt with by the cohesive Italian defense. 

As Germany looked increasingly desperate they left massive holes in their defense.  Italy was unfortunate not to score on these opportunities and squandered several due to poor finishing.  When one such chance eventually went in the net, it was ruled offside by the linesman, another opportunity to seal the deal wasted.

Germany finally got the opportunity they sought thanks to a fortunate decision from the referee when the ball struck the arm of Federico Balzaretti in the 91st minute.  Mesut Ozil capably stepped up and finished the penalty, despite Gigi Buffon diving in the correct direction.  The late goal did not give way to the dramatic finish that Ze Germans sought, and the Italians celebrated their deserved victory.

Italy will now face Spain, in a rematch of their group stage matchup where they drew 1-1.  The juxtaposition of styles and expectations of the fans should make for an entertaining game, despite Spain drawing criticism for playing some dreadfully boring football throughout the tournament. 

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2012 by Lex

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Accept the pass, turn, build up speed. These were things that came naturally after thousands of hours of training. What had practically become second nature would soon become impossible. Performing those simple tasks that I had already done a dozen times that day would end up being my final act on the football pitch for the season. The ball found my right foot, flicked ahead easily, my Adidas f50 Ballon D'Or boots shone as I glided ahead to collect the ball. Then suddenly it all changed, a tug on my side, a kick that nobody had delivered, and finally with a final step a painful, audible POP!

Crumbling to the ground in absolute agony, looking up to the sky wondering “Why me?” For a moment I was in disbelief before the pain hit. It came in a waves and overwhelmed my other senses. Pounding the ground with my fists and pulling up grass in frustration did not assuage the pain, but it did provide an outlet. Finally after a few moments, I rolled into a sitting position and allowed my leg to be assessed by the medical student who I deemed qualified enough to examine it. By this time a circle had formed around me, I could sense their shared disappointment. The medical student determined that it had not been seriously injured, but I knew better, I had felt it, I had heard it.

No amount of training can prepare you for the overwhelming disappointment of injury. Walking into the doctor's office a few days later I was prepared for the worst. Yet there is always a part that refuses to accept the truth, hopeful that your injury is minor and that you will be fine in a matter of days. After a half hour in an MRI tube, several assessments from a world class doctor, and a battery of x-rays the diagnosis was complete. Complete ACL rupture. When you hear the words on ESPN or Sky Sports they do not carry the same weight, you hear the athlete will be out 6-9 months, but you don't sense their frustration. Hearing those words on the doctor's table was absolutely devastating.

Following those fateful words, the doctor described how a month from that day, they would systematically cripple my right leg in order to rebuild it. One month later my right knee would become a Frankenstein monster made up of metal, screws, an anchor, and my own patellar tendon. It sounded absurd, but it was the only way back onto the field.

In the month preceding the operation, I walked around in a gloomy haze. Food had not been as flavorful, my relationships suffered, I was far from my usual self. I had entirely too much free time to stew on my current predicament. As the day grew closer, I began to question whether the surgery was necessary. I was moving around alright on my own, maybe I could give up the sport I love in favor of some safer alternative, but in my heart I knew I would not be satisfied until I returned to where I belong.

Walking into the hospital with my father by my side, I had mentally prepared myself for the worst pain I have ever experienced. As I answered the same 10 questions repeatedly, spelling my name and giving my birth date to a dozen people that morning. I grew nervous as the impending procedure grew closer. Being wheeled from room to room in an uncomfortable metal bed, in absurd garments that had been shared by unknowable others, I felt unusual. Strangers peered at my naked body behind surgical masks while I unconsciously dreamed of having my teeth pulled out. The intravenous drugs had worked their magic and I awoke wordlessly in another room, in another section of the hospital with my right leg heavily bandaged within the black brace I had been given. I had to be reminded by the attending nurse to breathe.

After receiving instructions on how to care for my leg, which I listened to in a drugged stupor, I was released into the care of my father. I stared down at the black brace that would become equal parts armor and prison. As we drove across the picturesque state of Pennsylvania, I drifted into and out of heavily drugged, dreamless sleep. The journey to a complete recover had begun. The first steps had been with crutches and the shoulder of my father, soon enough they will be on my own.

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2012 by Lex

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players in the world.  He is the highest profile player at Euro 2012, he is the captain of his country, and has won the Ballon D'Or, Champions League, and domestic titles wherever he has gone, yet he is not satisfied.  This is the mark of a great player, yet it is the reason he is one of the most hated and divisive players in the world of football.

Full Highlights Here

His main rival, Lionel Messi, has a contrasting style and attitude that makes him tremendously more endearing to the media and fans.  Ronaldo's direct style and flair are eye catching in a different way than Messi's sprightly movements.  Comparisons between the two players is inevitable with each playing at rival clubs battling for the same league trophy and La Liga scoring titles, but to compare the players individually there is almost no doubt that Ronaldo is the more versatile, complete player.  Possessing superior aerial skills, size, and the ability/willingness to put in a dirty tackle, Ronaldo is simply capable of doing more things on the pitch.  It is Ronaldo's attitude that prevents him from winning over the hearts of those that admire him.

Ronaldo's petulant attitude and frustration were on display for all the world to see yesterday evening.  As Portugal took on the Czech Republic, Ronaldo was once again the center of attention.  He earned several spectacular chances in the first half that included a bicycle kick that sailed wide and an open effort off of a tremendous piece of skill that was parried off the post by Petr Cech in the closing moments of the half.  Ronaldo looked to the sky, seemingly pleading with the football gods to bestow another goal on his prolific scoring record.  Often under these circumstances, Ronaldo's emotions get the better of him and deter his teammates from participating, but with Portugal the squad rallied around their frustrated captain, knowing the victory they deserved was lurking just around the corner.

During this tournament Ronaldo has earned criticism for not being able to find the back of the net, but his efforts have earned him a record as the tournament's most accurate shooter, with 21 shots on target.  The early stages of the second half continued the cycle of frustration for Ronaldo, he had a free kick effort again parried off the post by Petr Cech.  The Czech Republic had begun the game with the upper hand, but after the opening twenty minutes it became a duel between Ronaldo and Cech, with neither man's determination deterred by the other's heroic efforts.  Portugal continued to rain shots on Cech's goal, but the towering keeper was able to turn aside their efforts in turn.  Theodor Gebre Selassie had been tasked with marking Ronaldo, but the tournament standout was incapable of near impossible task.

Eventually Ronaldo earned the goal he sought.  Coming off of a cross from Joao Moutinho, Ronaldo met the ball with a diving header that bounced off the ground and over the hands of Petr Cech.  That single moment was what Portugal needed to win the game they had thoroughly dominated, and it had come at last.  Ronaldo ran to the sideline, pounded his chest, and celebrated with his teammates before looking into the camera and blowing a kiss to his son.  Ronaldo can do these things because he earns every chance through his tireless work rate. His technical ability puts other elite players to shame. He is never afraid to put a team on his back to earn victory.

The Czech Republic was unable to amount much of an offensive attack in the waning moments of the match, and Portugal ran out clear and deserved winners.  Ronaldo is now tied with Mario Gomez, Alan Dzagoev, and Mario Mandzukic as the top scorer of Euro 2012.  Portugal moves on, with the hopes of lifting the European Cup for the first time in their country's history and with Ronaldo at the helm of Os Navegadores they may just do it.

Posted on Friday, June 22, 2012 by Lex

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In spite of winning titles with every team he plays for, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has earned the reputation of being a player that goes missing during big matches.  When the pressure is off is when he seems to shine brightest, yesterday was another example of this.  Following Sweden's elimination from Euro 2012 following consecutive defeats at the hands of Ukraine and England, Zlatan lifted Sweden to victory over France in a game that hand nothing at stake other than pride.

Full Highlights Here

France's manager Laurent Blanc opted to start Yann M'Vila and Hatem Ben Arfa in place of the previously effective Yohan Cabaye and Jeremy Menez.  While the duo turned in satisfactory performances, neither were able to give France the spark they needed in this match.  Karim Benzema played in a deeper role that did not resemble his traditional striker position that he plays so expertly with Real Madrid.  Throughout the match the French struggled to break through the formidable defense that the Swedes provided.

That defense was led by the intimidating, bearded Olof Mellberg who turned in a great defensive performance for Sweden.  He was the focal point of the Swedish defense and he nearly got on the goal sheet, forcing a save from French captain Hugo Lloris.  Martin Olsson effectively shut down Mathieu Debuchy, whose marauding runs up the flank had caused many problems for England and Ukraine.  The Swedish defense earned their shutout through hard work, excellent positioning, and timely clearances.

Christian Wilhelmsson entered the match at halftime, in place of Emir Bajrami, and his introduction signaled the beginning of the Swedish dominance of the second half.  Wilhelmsson along with Martin Olsson combined to make French full back Mathieu Debuchy appear tame, a difficult feat considering he had been heralded as one of the tournament's revelations.  One can't help but think what might have been if Wilhelmsson had been started in the previous two matches.

Zlatan's moment of brilliance came in the 54th minute off a cross from Sebastian Larsson.  After sizing up the attempt, Zlatan leapt into the air and unleashed a furious side volley that Hugo Lloris was helpless to stop.  Better than Balotelli's overhead kick, more spectacular than Captain Kuba's wonderstrike, Zlatan had again proved why he is considered one of the best players in the world.

France's efforts to come back and equalize were repeatedly wasted due to inaccurate finishing, with Ribery, Nasri, and substitute Olivier Giroud all missing opportunities.  Finally in the 90th minute, Sweden put the game beyond doubt thanks to Sebastian Larsson.  Larsson blasted in Samuel Holmen's rebound off the crossbar that came off a beautiful cross from Wilhelmsson.  The impressive display allowed Sweden to leave Ukraine with their pride intact.

France now have to regroup in time to face the reigning champions Spain in their quarterfinal matchup.  France finished in second place in Group D following the loss.  Can Laurent Blanc rally his squad and turn in the performance that will be necessary to defeat Spain? Will the old demons in the French squad stir up again in time to sabotage France's campaign?

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Lex

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It has been a long, hard few months for John Terry.  He has come under fire for alleged racism, been stripped of his England captaincy, red-carded against Barcelona, missed an opportunity to play in the Champions League final, and had his beloved Chelsea win the European title without him.  He earned criticism for wearing his uniform during celebrations (as he was directed to by UEFA), having his date in court pushed back until after the Euros (beyond his control), and been accused of causing potential rifts in the England squad (he hasn't).  Yet for today, he is able to put all of that criticism on the back burner because he is England's hero and savior once again.

Full Time Football

Terry's moment of heroism occurred in the 62nd minute when a long ball reached Anatoliy Yarmolenko (in offside position) who moved the ball to Marko Devic.  Devic's low shot was deflected by Joe Hart, but the ball popped over the diving keeper drifting agonizingly close to the goal line.  As the ball appeared to cross the line, John Terry dove and cleared the ball from danger with an overhead kick.  Despite the protests of the Ukrainian fans and players, the referee continued play and England's Brave John Terry had saved the day.

England was the victim of a similar decision at the 2010 World Cup, when Frank Lampard's shot against Germany looked to have crossed the line.  With FIFA set to vote on the use of instant replay and goalline technology use next month, these two incidents will surely be at the center of the debate.  FIFA President Sepp Blatter has already changed his mind on the issue and now supports the use of technology to assist referees, all it took was a decision to go England's way.

Wayne Rooney signaled his return to the England squad following his two match ban with a goal just minutes into the second half.  After an unimpressive first half display where he missed a prime scoring chance, Rooney headed home the winner for England just three minutes into the second half.  Steven Gerrard's cross was deflected, but somehow bounced through the hands of Andriy Pyatov and onto the balding head of Rooney.  It was Rooney's first major tournament goal for England in 673 minutes.

England again displayed the deep lying formation preferred by the squad since Roy Hodgson's introduction as manager. Their attacking ventures forward in the first half were not as enthusiastic as the Ukrainian attacks, but England's defensive responsibilities were capably led by John Terry.  Scott Parker turned in another tireless performance in the defensive midfield despite nearly conceding a penalty in the first half, he had several crucial blocks that stopped Ukraine from testing Joe Hart.  Steven Gerrard gave another outstanding performance, and was easily Man of the Match after having his cross find Rooney for the goal.

This match also featured the swan song of Andriy Shevchenko's international career.  The Ukrainian captain played his final minutes in major competition for his country, coming on in the 70th minute after being curiously overlooked by Oleg Blokhin.  Shevchenko did not have much impact on the game, his only meaningful contribution coming in the form of a yellow card for a desperate lunge against Ashley Young. It was not a fitting end for the incredible international career that Sheva has had, but at least he was reunited with former teammates Terry and Ashley Cole.

With the victory, England have claimed the top spot of Group D and will now face Italy in the quarterfinals.  Will Hodgson's defensive tactics continue to produce results?

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Lex

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Spain was unimpressive in their final group stage match against Croatia and needed a late goal from Jesus Navas to defeat their opponent.  Despite having the upper hand and enjoying the majority of possession, the Spanish again lacked killer instinct to put their Croatian opponents away.  Croatia played compact, defensive minded football from the start, but earned several opportunities that nearly produced a winner.  Spain did not have qualification for the quarterfinal wrapped up either and it was surprising to see them play with a lack of urgency while Croatia played a determined match, fighting to the very end.

Full Highlights Here

Fernando Torres danced down the right side to earn Spain's first scoring opportunity of the match, but his near post effort was effectively parried away by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa who again looked formidable behind the Croatia defense.  Pletikosa was again tested a few minutes later by Sergio Ramos, but the defender's shot from distance skipped along the turf and was easily collected by the keeper.

Croatia nearly found a break through the skill of Mario Mandzukic, the tournament's most accurate player with 3 goals on 4 shots heading into yesterday's match.  Mandzukic raced down the right wing past Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, before Ramos met Mandzukic with a studs up tackle that sent the Croatia striker flying.  Despite Ramos not appearing to touch the ball and contact being made inside the box, referee Wolfgang Stark awarded a corner kick to Croatia.

Croatia were again denied shouts for a penalty when Vedran Corluka looked to have been fouled in the box during a corner kick.  Referee Wolfgang Stark deemed otherwise and awarded the goal kick to Spain, but video shows that Corluka's arm was in a wrestling hold as he was taken to the ground by Sergio Busquets.  It was the second penalty shout denied to Croatia and both decisions certainly changed the game in favor of Spain.

The late stages of the match were an exciting, nervous affair.  Croatia nearly found a winner when Luka Modric curled a ball onto the head of Ivan Rakitic, but the header was parried away by Iker Casillas and cleared from danger.  Croatia had another opportunity on a volley from Ivan Perisic, but again Casillas was in the right position to make the save.

Following the introduction of Cesc Fabregas, Spain appeared more inventive.  It was Fabregas's lofted ball to Andreas Iniesta that eventually earned Spain the goal they sought.  Following Fab's lofted ball, the Croatian defense stopped for what appeared to be offside.  The referee correctly ruled that Iniesta had been onside and he calmly moved the ball over to savior Jesus Navas who emphatically blasted the ball into the empty net.

Despite the considerable defensive efforts of Gordon Schildenfeld and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, Croatia were eliminated from the tournament on that goal.  A 0-0 result would have done the same, but Croatia was unable to convert the opportunities that were presented to them by the defending champions.  Spain now move on and will face the runner-up from Group D on Saturday where they will have to find their finishing touch if they hope to defend their title and make history.   

Posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by Lex

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The Azzuri arrived in Poznan with one goal in mind, win today's match against Ireland and ensure their spot in the quarterfinal.  Even with the win they would need some help from Spain to earn qualification, but Italy had to focus on the task at hand.  Ireland looked up for the game and their fans were in full voice, commemorating the scene by performing "the Poznan."  The teams started out by trading blows, Italy looking composed and in control, while Ireland attacked directly with fury.  Despite several early ventures forward, timely interventions from defenders prevented either goalkeeper from being tested.

Sean St. Ledger had several of those interventions, the best came when Antonio Cassano rounded keeper Shay Given and put a shot on target from an impossible angle.  St. Ledger arrived just in the nick of time to prevent the opening goal for Italy, and his presence throughout the night caused headaches for Italian attackers.  St. Ledger was helpless to prevent the eventual Italian opener that came a few minutes later of Andrea Pirlo's corner.

Pirlo's corner found the head of Antonio Cassano, whose glancing header went off the hand of Shay Given and into the back of the net.  Damien Duff, celebrating his 100th appearance for Ireland, attempted to clear the ball just after it had crossed the line.  Despite looking shaky in the early stages, this goal could hardly be blamed on Given, it was a goal that came thanks to countless hours on the training pitch.  Ireland has been repeatedly exploited on set pieces throughout the tournament and tonight provided two more examples of this.

As the match entered the late stages of the second half it became a nervy affair for Italian fans.  Despite dominating the game, if Italy conceded and finished with a draw they would be eliminated.  Just as the news arrived in Poznan that Italy would be going through, thanks to a late goal from Jesus Navas in Spain's match against Croatia, Mario Balotelli but the game beyond doubt.  His spectacular overhead volley, while being fouled by John O'Shea, will be remembered as one of the goals of the tournament.  

Balotelli's stoppage time goal was another example of the striker's most amazing attribute, sprezzatura.  Sprezzatura is an Italian word meaning "the perfect conduct or performance of something without apparent effort".  When Balotelli rose in celebration he appeared to say something directed at parties unknown before having his mouth covered by Leonardo Bonucci.

The target of Balotelli's abuse could have been many, Balotelli received racial abuse and a banana thrown his way during the Croatia match.  He was booed as he entered the pitch by the Irish fans.  Additionally, it could have been his manager Cesare Prandelli, who had chosen Balotelli as a substitute following a reported knee injury in training.  After watching his replacement Antonio Di Natale waste several chances, there's no doubt it must have been frustrating to the young striker.

Balotelli's frustration before the goal was only exceeded by Keith Andrews.  Andrews turned in a fiery performance for Ireland and after picking up a yellow card in the first half, earned his second for dissent in the 89th minute.  He displayed his frustration by booting the match ball into the technical area before exiting the pitch.  Andrews' frustration was likely shared by many Irish fans, those who had refused to accept their fate.

Italy will now face the winner of Group D on Sunday.  With an extra day of rest over their opposition, Italy will look to take full advantage of any fatigue felt by their opponents.  

Posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by Lex

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Monday, June 18, 2012

After winning their first two matches, Germany came into their third needing a single point to ensure they would finish as the winners of Group B.  Instead Ze Germans won the match and finished with a perfect nine points in the group stage for the first time in European Championship history.  It was another impressive performance by Germany, meeting the expectations of many that had chosen the 2008 runners up as favorites.

See the goals here:

Manager Joachim Low made a single change to his starting lineup, choosing Lars Bender in place of the suspended Jerome Boateng.  Low's single adjustment paid immediate dividends, with Bender scoring the winning goal that saw Germany safely through and eliminated Denmark.

Scoring began in the 19th minute when Thomas Muller accepted a throw in and passed the ball to the center.  Mario Gomez flicked the pass onto the path of Lukas Podolski and he celebrated his 100th appearance for Germany with the game's opening goal.

It took only five minutes for the Danes to respond.  Their answer came off of a corner kick that was headed by Nicklas Bendtner back across the box to Michael Krohn-Dehli.  The winger flicked the header into the back of the net to earn his second goal of the tournament.  Krohn-Dehli has been one of the biggest surprises of Euro 2012 and contributed two goals and an assist to the Danish efforts.

Krohn-Dehli's heroic efforts were only outdone by his captain Daniel Agger whose impressive defensive displays were the source of frustration to all of Denmark's opponents.  Agger's timely interventions prevented numerous German scoring opportunities, and were enough to earn him man of the match honors despite Denmark suffering defeat.

When Portugal pulled ahead 2-1 in their match with the Netherlands, the commentators pointed out that if Germany were to lose, they would be eliminated.  Almost immediately Germany responded with the attack that earned them the winning goal.  Andre Schurlle led the attack and his long pass eventually found the path of the streaking Lars Bender, who calmly finished past Stephan Andersen.  The goal sealed the game for Germany who had cruised through the group stages with relative ease.  Denmark despite their heroic efforts are now eliminated from Euro 2012.

Now the eagerly anticipated matchup with Greece looms on the horizon. As the ongoing Greece/Germany debt crisis continues, this match will be a contest between those affected by the German austerity plan and the enforcers of that plan. Will the downtrodden Greeks made a shocking repeat of their 2004 campaign?  Will Ze Germany reign supreme? We will have to wait and find out Friday.

Posted on Monday, June 18, 2012 by Lex

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Expectations can weigh heavy on a team, particularly a team possessing such glaring defensive weakness as the Netherlands.  What may not have been obvious before the tournament was made blatantly obvious in their first match against Denmark, thoroughly exploited in their second against Germany, and finally abused by Portugal during their final Group B fixture.  There were few bright spots for the Dutch team and Euro 2012 is a tournament that they will want to quickly forget.

For a few minutes, it looked like the Netherlands would be able to rescue themselves from elimination.  Arjen Robben made his trademark cut inside and rather than attempting a shot with his left, he played the ball along to Rafael Van der Vaart.  Van der Vaart’s curling effort sailed into the goal around the diving Rui Patricio and suddenly the Dutch had hopes of making history.

Those hopes were soon crushed thanks to the tireless work of Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo.  Ronaldo has come under fire during this tournament for his wasteful finishing and usual petulant behavior.  During this match he served as a prime example of what a captain should be.  Just a couple minutes following Van der Vaart’s opener, Ronaldo soared above the Dutch defense and met Nani’s cross with a powerful header. The shot was parried by Stekelenberg, but he could not do the same for Ronaldo’s next effort a few minutes later.

Ronaldo accepted a pristine through ball from Joao Periera and easily finished.  It was his first goal of the tournament, finally shaking the monkey off his back.  Throughout the match he dominated Dutch right back Gregory Van der Weil and made quick work of replacement center back Ron Vlaar.  Ronaldo’s assault on the Dutch front was joined by his counterpart Nani and assisted by attacking runs from full backs Joao Periera and Fabio Coentrao.  Together their quick, decisive attacks torched the Netherlands and showed a real example of what Portugal is capable of.

Dutch attackers Robin Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were anonymous for long stretches of the match; both are capable of much better performances.  The frustrated Bert Van Marwijk, had little influence over his squad during what may be his final match as the Netherlands manager.  Making only a single substitution, his team failed to adjust and contain the Portuguese midfield that had continually overrun Nigel De Jong without the presence of captain Mark Van Bommel. 

The Dutch disappointment reached rock bottom when Cristiano Ronaldo put the game beyond doubt.  Shortly after a spectacular miss from Nani, the Manchester United winger made penance by playing a long pass to the feet of Ronaldo.  The Portuguese captain stopped on a dime and allowed the Dutch defender to fly past, before slamming the finish behind Stekelenberg. 

With the game out of hand, Rafael Van der Vaart had an effort strike the woodwork, but the disappointing Dutch were incapable of avoiding defeat.  Ultimately, there was little the Netherlands could do to avoid defeat. There had been moments of competence during their third lackluster performance of the tournament, but they had not been enough to earn the Dutch a single point at the tournament.  Perhaps the lack of squad harmony can be blamed, maybe it is the lack of a traditional Dutch formation, or the fact that none of the starting XI share the same club team.  Whatever the reason, major changes are likely before the next major tournament.

Posted on Monday, June 18, 2012 by Lex

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Polish fans were in full voice as their national heroes took the field.  Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski was on hand to view the match that he hoped would see his proud nation advance to the quarterfinals.  The match began as many Polish fans had hoped, with their team taking the initiative and looking dangerous in the attack.  Dariusz Dudka nearly found the net with a bicycle kick in the early stages, but the ball only found the side netting.

Full Highlights Here

The Polish dominance continued throughout the early stages and Poland was nearly rewarded, but Robert Lewandowski's effort did not find the net.  Another attempt from Sebastian Boenisch met a similar fate, but the Polish attack continued before eventually subsiding around the 25th when the Czech Republic began to come into the game.  From that point on the Czech Republic were able to dictate the tempo, remaining solid in defense and began to overrun Poland in the midfield.

Full backs Theodor Gebre-Selassie and David Limbersky turned in fantastic performances for the Czech Republic, but the man of the match had to be Tomas Sivok.  The central defender was the keystone of the Czech defense, turning away the continued efforts of the Polish attack.  One of the most thrilling moments of the match had to have been Michal Kadlec's desperation goalline clearance that occurred in stoppage time.

The breakthrough moment in this match came off of the foot of Petr Jiracek in the 72nd minute. Tomas Hubschman's interception in the midfield led to the breakout where he moved the ball to Milan Baros.  Baros passed to Jiracek who cut inside and finished with his right foot past the sprawling Polish defenders.  As the Czech's celebrated the Polish fans began to look as dejected as their players on the pitch.

The Polish performance had dropped in the second half as the squad began to tire.  Even the tireless efforts of Robert Lewandowski were not enough to rescue the hosts. Francisek Smuda introduced attackers Pawel Brozek and Adrian Mierzejewski, but the duo were not able to test Petr Cech thanks to the stout defending from the Czech Republic.

The absence of Czech captain Tomas Rosicky did not stop the Czech Republic from claiming their spot as the unlikely winners of  Group A.  Despite suffering defeat in their first match, the Czechs recovered with two wins against Greece and Poland and will now face the runner up from Group B.  

Posted on Sunday, June 17, 2012 by Lex

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Sometimes a match can be changed by a single moment of brilliance.  As the teams approached the halftime break, ready to go in even at zero that moment occurred.  Greece answered the call in first half added time when Giorgos Karagounis took advantage of a misplayed header by Russian defender Sergei Ignashevic.  The Greek captain pounced on the loose ball and tore through the Russian penalty area before firing a shot low to Vyacheslav Malafeev's right.  The Russian keeper was unable to get down to the low shot and suddenly the game had been turned on its head.

Russia had been wasteful with their first half opportunities, a trend that had continued from their first two matches.  Alexsandr Kerzhakov's wasteful shooting attempts seems to have been contagious through the Russian squad, with in form teammate Alan Dzagoev flubbing several prime chances.  The trend continued following Kerzhakov's departure for Roman Pavlyuchenko at the halftime interval.  Russia who had looked so dangerous in their opening fixture lacked composure in front of goal.  

Greece nearly found themselves a little cushion in the 61st minute when Karagounis was taken down in the box by Ignashevic.  Despite there being clear contact made, the referee's angle did not allow him to view it, and Karagounis was booked for simulation.  The Greek captain leaped to his feet and crossed himself, swearing that he had not embellished the act, but his pleas went unanswered. Despite Greece advancing to the quarterfinals, they will be without their captain.

Another opportunity for Greece came when Yuri Zhirkov hauled down Dimitri Salpingidis.  Giorgios Tzavellas' free kick was well struck, but it hit the crossbar and bounced clear, another opportunity denied.  Dick Advocaat desperately searched for the solution to his side's finishing problems, introducing Pavel Pogrebnyak and Marat Izmailov, but the answer was never found and Russia was doomed to their fate.

Losing this match, eliminated Russia from the competition. Despite playing some of the most beautiful football displayed in Euro 2012 and being viewed by many as the cream of Group A, the wasteful finishing they had also displayed had betrayed them.  Russia only had two of their 31 shots find the target.  Greece on the other hand had been opportunistic and their courageous display brought joy to the beleaguered nation.  Greece will now face the winner of Group B in the quarterfinal.

Posted on Sunday, June 17, 2012 by Lex

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

England vs. Sweden was the most exciting match of Euro 2012 thus far.  The match offered fans everything they could handle; redemption, two comebacks, and finally an unlikely hero. Despite playing in two of the most entertaining and dramatic matches of Euro 2012, Sweden becomes the second team to be eliminated from the competition. Their second half comeback was not enough to stave off defeat at the hands of the Three Lions.

Full Match Highlights Here

The first half was a rather boring affair, the lone bright spot coming off of a cross from England captain Steven Gerrard.  The in-swinging cross was met by the head of Gerrard's Liverpool teammate Andy Carroll.  Carroll has come under fire since his high price transfer from Newcastle, but he redeemed himself to the home nation by powering a header past Andreas Isaksson for the game's opening goal.  John Terry had several timely interventions on Swedish captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic to prevent scoring opportunities for Sweden.  England overall looked very complacent and conservative, content to hold onto their 1-0 lead.

Just a few short minutes after the halftime break, a free kick was conceded by Andy Carroll in a dangerous area.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic's free kick was a poor effort, striking the English wall, but his second effort fell to Olof Mellberg.  Mellberg pounced on the loose ball and fired a shot towards the goal that bounced off the hands of Joe Hart and knocked into the goal by a sprawling Glen Johnson.  Sweden had earned their equalizer, not the most beautiful goal, but it would serve their needs for the time being.  The goal was originally awarded to Mellberg, but later corrected to

England was looking increasingly desperate, and if it were not for a perfectly timed sliding tack from Glen Johnson they could have conceded just a few minutes later.  Sweden were overwhelming the English midfield and a free kick was given to Sweden after a clumsy tackle from a tired looking James Milner earned a yellow card.  The ensuing free kick from 40 yards was struck by Sebastian Larsson and met by a soaring header from the unmarked Olaf Mellberg. Mellberg's header sailed past the helpless Joe Hart and suddenly England were standing on the verge of defeat.

Roy Hodson's influence on the match began with Theo Walcott's introduction, it was the turning point of the match for England, entering for the yellow carded James Milner.  Walcott immediately changed the game following his introduction, earning the equalizer on a shot from outside of the penalty area that soared over the mass of humanity in front of him and into the goal past the un-sighted Isaksson.  The goal was Walcott's first goal for England since scoring a hat-trick in 2008 against Croatia.  His return to international scoring could not have come at a more valuable time for England.

Sweden did not back down following the equalizer, their responding attacks leading to chances for Kim Kallstrom and Ibrahimovic. Kallstrom's effort sailed over the bar and Zlatan's effort was turned away by Joe Hart, but the English defense looked porous and vulnerable to attack, especially down the left flank.

Theo Walcott's influence since his introduction continued and he contributed the cross that led to Danny Welbeck's wonderful backheel winning goal.  The goal came when Walcott dribbled towards the touch line before sending in a cross that Welbeck finished the only way he possibly could have with a turning backheel effort that bounced into the far corner of the goal.  It was an incredible moment of brilliance from the young England stars and it sent their fans into a frenzy.

Walcott was not done yet and he led an English trio on another break into Swedish territory.  His break down the right side ended with a cross to the center intended for either Gerrard or the newly introduced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Gerrard took the initiative with a leaping strike that was sent straight into the chest of Andreas Isaksson and bounced clear. England looked extremely dangerous since the introduction of Walcott and his efforts single-handedly turned the game around.

The final whistle sounded signaling the elimination of Sweden, Heavily criticized for negative tactics and squad selection, redemption came sweetly for the Three Lions. They now need only a draw against Ukraine to secure their place in the quarterfinals.  

Posted on Saturday, June 16, 2012 by Lex

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Lightning struck the Donbass Arena shortly into the match this evening.  Soon afterwards the entire facility was engulfed in an early match deluge.  The driving sheets of rain and dangerously close lightning strikes prompted referee Bjorn Kuipers to call a delay to the match after just four minutes of play.  Despite the rain causing a delay in the match that did not deter the enthusiasm of the home crowd that came to support their national heroes.

Match highlights available here

After the match official halted play for nearly an hour before the rain eventually subsided and the players returned to the pitch, resuming play. The first half hour after the restart was difficult for the aging Ukraine squad, who struggled to recover after the lengthy delay.  Eventually the Ukranian squad settled into the game forcing French keeper Hugo Lloris to make saves on two scoring opportunities from Andriy Shevchenko.  Despite France enjoying the majority of first half chances, the game nearly turned on its head when miscommunication between Gael Clichy and Lloris led to a chance for Andriy Yarmolenko, but the chance was wasted.

Lightning would again strike twice in the second half, only this time coming off the left feet of Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye.  Menez' goal came when he collected the ball on the right flank, took a decisive cut inside, and finished between the legs of Yevgen Selin. It was a great break for the French set up by a Franck Ribery pass that allowed Menez to control the ball in space.  Karim Benzema was also crucial in the buildup, leading the attack down the left flank before switching to Ribery.

The French struck again three minutes later, set up from another brilliant ball by Karim Benzema.  He found Yohan Cabaye with a ball that dissected the desperately defending Ukrainians before Cabaye turned and yanked a low left footed strike across his body into the goal.  This impressive display was the first time France had scored two goals in a major competition since the 2006 World Cup against Spain.

As the match dragged on and the rain continued to fall, the endurance of Ukraine failed them and their pace and enthusiasm could not be buoyed by their raucous supporters.  In one run of play, France managed to string together twenty consecutive passes before Yohan Cabaye's effort struck the post.  Ukraine simply lacked the magic they had during their opening match against Sweden, and will look to regain that magic and secure qualification next week against England.  France now need only a draw to secure their spot in the quarterfinals.  

Posted on Friday, June 15, 2012 by Lex

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As the final seconds ticked away in a match that had been a foregone conclusion since the opening minutes, Arena Gdansk was echoing the songs of the Irish fans.  Despite being down 4-0, and witnessing Fernando Torres' escape from Spanish football purgatory, the Irish fans sang proudly. Their team had been eliminated, playing poorly in their first two group stage matches, but the Irish fans made sure their team did not exit silently.  It was the most spectacular display by fans thus far at the tournament and was the perfect compliment to the beautiful football being displayed on the field by Spain.

Match Highlights Here
Irish Fans' Performance in Full

The Fields of Athenry has been a part of Irish football for over two decades now.  It serves as the inspiration for Liverpool's "The Fields of Anfield", it can be heard at GAA events (Gaelic Games), and sung in unison (with different lyrics)  by both sides of the Old Firm Derby.  The song written in the 1970s about the Irish Potato Famine, portrays a fictional man Michael who has stolen food for his starving family, only to be caught and sent to Bottany Bay, Australia as punishment.  It is the perfect metaphor for the Irish participation at Euro 2012.

By a lonely prison wall 
I heard a young girl calling 
Micheal they are taking you away 
For you stole Trevelyn's corn 
So the young might see the morn. 
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay. 

Low lie the Fields of Athenry 
Where once we watched the small free birds fly. 
Our love was on the wing we had dreams and songs to sing 
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry. 

Irish football has undergone much hardship in recent memory, having their qualification for World Cup 2010 snatched away by the hand of Thierry Henry.  Their domestic league is of low quality, with the entirety of the Irish squad being made up of foreign based players.  Several members of their squad are foreign born, declaring for Ireland due to the heritage of parents and grandparents, yet the connection with the supporters remains strong. Where in many countries this would breed hostility and emnity towards a squad with a distant connection, with Ireland it has brought unity with fans traveling from all over the world to support the underdogs that they love.

By a lonely prison wall 
I heard a young man calling 
Nothing matter Mary when your free, 
Against the Famine and the Crown 
I rebelled they ran me down 
Now you must raise our child with dignity. 

Low lie the Fields of Athenry 
Where once we watched the small free birds fly. 
Our love was on the wing we had dreams and songs to sing 
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry. 

Ireland has the lonely label as the only team eliminated from Euro 2012, but they have accepted that label from the start.  Knowing they were over-matched in their group, the Irish fans came with the lone goal of supporting their lads, regardless of the outcome.  As Irish fans befriended their Spanish and Croatian opposition, their team disappointed them on the field.  When they faced what is by all measures the best team in the world, their defense crumbled in the wake of superior force.  Other Euro 2012 participants (cough...Russia) brought their hooligans, the Irish brought their song.

By a lonely harbor wall 
She watched the last star falling 
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky 
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray 
For her love in Botany Bay 
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry. 

Low lie the Fields of Athenry 
Where once we watched the small free birds fly. 
Our love was on the wing we had dreams and songs to sing 
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

Before the world watches the Irish sail away from Euro 2012, they have one more match against Italy. Again you can expect the Irish to sing their support to the end.  It will be a fitting send off for Irish legends like Robbie Keane, Shay Given, and Damien Duff, all likely playing in their final major competition for Ireland after ten years of waiting.  Hopefully we will not have to wait as long to greet them and their fans again.

Posted on Friday, June 15, 2012 by Lex

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Croatia retained their spot on top of Group C by earning a critical draw this afternoon.  Italy was the livelier of the two sides in the first half of play, but as the game grew closer towards full time Croatia had the upper hand and were nearly able to snatch a win.  Neither team was able to find the decisive goal and the match ended 1-1.

Italy was unable to take advantage of a number of first half opportunities and it cost them two points in today's match against Croatia.  Despite beginning the match with the upper hand and controlling possession for long periods, Italy's continued attempts from open play and corner kicks were repeatedly kept out of the goal by Croatian keeper, Stipe Pletikosa.  Mario Balotelli had two early chances and was heavily influential in the early stage, but diminished as the game went on.  

Antonio Cassano had several opportunities, one coming off a brilliant pass from Andrea Pirlo, only to have his effort turned aside by Pletikosa.  Pirlo's influence continued throughout the match and he was certainly the top player on the pitch today. Claudio Marchisio was turned away by Pletikosa, who answered the call with two saves in rapid succession.  The relentless Italian attack continued and they were rewarded shortly before the end of the half.

Andrea Pirlo became the first player to score directly from a set piece since Marek Heinz in 2004.  Pirlo's free kick was a beautiful curling effort that glanced off the outstretched hand of Pletikosa before finding the back of the net.  Pirlo's last five goals for Italy have all come off set pieces, and the midfielder's composure and presence are a critical part of the Italian squad's strength.

Mario Mandzukic continued his role as Croatia's hero today, earning his third goal of tournament.  He evaded Giorgio Chiellini to find space on the far post to accept the looping cross from Ivan Strinic  His finish was an emphatic strike from close range that hit to near post to beat Gigi Buffon.  The Italian defense had left their keeper captain out to dry and put their tournament survival in danger.  

After limited opportunities from both sides, the Croatians settled into their own end and played for the draw.  A halfhearted breakout from their own end was spoiled by sloppy possession from Eduardo, and their best opportunity at a winner was wasted.  Croatia took to fouling Italian players whenever they threatened in attack and a yellow card was picked up by Schildenfeld for one such incident.

Croatian fans littered the field with flares several times during the second half.  This prompted several match stoppages from referee Howard Webb after the Italian end of the pitch was immersed in a cloud of smoke.  Stadium announcements made in several languages did not deter the Croatian faithful and they celebrated their draw like they had just ensured their advancement.

Despite only earning a draw, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli remains undefeated in his role.  Slaven Bilic can be happy with the way his team responded in the second half after being thoroughly dominated at the start.  Italy are now without a win in their last six matches at major competitions.  Italy will need a win over Ireland and a win from Spain over Croatia to ensure qualification for the knockout stages.  Croatia will need only a draw from their match against Spain to lock up their spot in the quarterfinal.

Posted on Thursday, June 14, 2012 by Lex

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