F365's Euro 2012 Semi-Finals Preview

We've reached the business end of Euro 2012 with Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany all vying for a place in Sunday's final. Matt Stanger previews the two semi-final fixtures...

Last Updated: 27/06/12 at 09:56 Post Comment

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Before the start of Euro 2012, the outcome of these semi-final fixtures would perhaps have appeared more clear-cut.

Germany were tipped by many to test Spain's domination but, while Jogi Loew's team have obliged, Italy are performing somewhat above expectations.

Cesare Prandelli's side will provide Germany's toughest examination yet on Thursday and similarly Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo in inspired form, will scrutinise the supposed weaknesses of Spain.

The reigning holders and world champions have maintained their masterful streak - despite reasoned suggestions of decline - but will be wary of a Portugal team full of confidence.

Spain v Portugal

It isn't a ground-breaking observation to point out that Portugal's main (only) hope of reaching the final is Ronaldo maintaining his current performance level.

The twice Ballon d'Or runner-up has been in superb form in the past two matches and hauled the team into this position with two goals against Holland and a wonderful winning header to see off Czech Republic.

Despite starting slowly in his first two appearances, Ronaldo has benefited from his teammates' willingness to pander to his needs. His arrogance might grate at times, but coach Paulo Bento has shrewdly opted to indulge his star player's ego rather than impose tactical restrictions that would result in an inevitable sulk. 

"I knew the goals would come," Ronaldo told the BBC following Portugal's passage to the semis. "It didn't start very well, but with the sacrifices of my teammates everything improved."

Ronaldo's three strikes so far mark his highest total in an international tournament and, perhaps spurred on by his desire to take the limelight from Lionel Messi (he appeared to mouth the Argentine's name after scoring in the quarter-final), he certainly has the bit between his teeth.

In certain respects, the 27-year-old's influence on Portugal's system has meant their performances up to this point have been excellent preparation for the meeting with Spain in Donetsk.

Indeed, they have been comfortable with ceding possession in exchange for high intensity counter-attacking, with Ronaldo and Nani readily supported by the full-backs Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira, whose assist for Ronaldo's first against Holland is arguably the pass of the tournament.

Despite averaging just 45.5% possession and a pass completion rate of 78.5% - less than both Sweden and Ukraine - Portugal's sudden-explosion approach has proved hugely successful. Although they fail to dominate the ball, only four teams have taken more shots per game. And Ronaldo stands top of the individual chart with a staggering 30 strikes - ten more than the next player, Mario Balotelli.

In the 2-1 victory over Holland in the final group game, Portugal had just 38% possession, but managed ten more shots than the Dutch. Not only does this bode well for Ronaldo and Nani breaking at speed to create chances against Spain, but it also demonstrates the team's ability to restrict the number of shooting opportunities they allow the opposition.

In Pepe and Bruno Alves, Portgual possess the most formidable central-back pairing in Poland and Ukraine, and if Fernando Torres spearheads the Spanish attack on Wednesday he will find it a tough task to evade the tenacious duo.

It's more likely, however, that Vicente del Bosque will continue with the striker-less system that has proved fruitful until now.

Torres' two goals against Ireland perhaps said more about the quality of Giovanni Trapattoni's side than the forward's return to international stardom, as his blunt performance against Croatia suggested that he simply doesn't fit into the way Spain intend to play.

Indeed, Torres made just two competitive appearances for the national team in the 18 months prior to Euro 2012 and at one stage it looked as though Roberto Soldado would be selected ahead of him this summer.

With Cesc Fabregas in a 'false 9' role, Spain can use their passing carousel to stretch the Portuguese defence without offering any focal point for their opponents to try and subdue. And although Fabregas, with two goals so far, has predominantly fed on Xavi and Andres Iniesta's passes between the lines, his positioning has been interchangeable with David Silva.

The team's ability to control matches in midfield has so far shielded frequent scrutiny of the defence, but Antonio Di Natale's goal in the opening game - which came from Italy's first through ball of the match - showed that Spain too can switch off as a result of their domination. And if Ivan Rakitic hadn't wasted a free header for Croatia in the final group game, Del Bosque's team could already have been out by this stage. You can be sure that Ronaldo won't allow such sloppiness to go unpunished on Wednesday.

Spain's effortless victory against France rather surprisingly brought criticism of the team's style which, despite proving to be all-conquering over the last four years, has been accused of being monotonous.

However, with the Spanish setting the bar, it is not for them to change their approach to the game - instead we should hope Portugal can prove worthy challengers to prevent the semi-final becoming as one-sided as the France defeat in the quarters.

The running joke is that Spain are evolving into some sort of self-parodic art project with their preferred system this summer, but their most vociferous critic, Ronaldo, is certainly capable of sabotaging Del Bosque's latest masterpiece.

Italy v Germany

Similar to the first semi-final, this fixture pits a significant favourite against an underdog, and one who will be exhausted after a gruelling quarter-final.

Italy may have progressed on penalties against England, but the biggest winner of Sunday's torturous affair was Germany, with Jogi Loew's team eagerly anticipating a fatigued opponent on Thursday.

Marco Reus, who scored a delightful goal on his first competitive start against Greece, rather summed up the confident mood in Germany's camp before the England v Italy quarter-final.

"Personally I don't care who we play," said the 23-year-old. "We know that we are a strong team and we will be relaxed watching their quarter-final because we don't care - bring them on."

As the only team to progress from the first stage with a 100% record - from what was dubbed the 'group of death' - Germany are riding high ahead of their semi-final showdown.

Their adaptability saw them dismantle Greece's deep defensive line with four goals on Friday night, but Loew is expected to revert to a more familiar selection against Italy. Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski should return to the starting line-up, with Reus and Andre Schurrle dropping to the bench.

However, Mario Gomez faces an uncertain wait to learn if he has regained his role as the team's centre-forward after Miroslav Klose demonstrated his superior movement in the victory over Greece.

Germany will continue with their aim of dominating possession as well as hitting their opponents on the break when the opportunity arises. Only Spain have averaged more possession than Die Mannschaft in the first four fixtures, with Holland being the only team to control more of the ball against Germany (53% to 47%).

We have seen, though, in Andrea Pirlo's wonderful display against England that Italy are equally capable of assured, patient passing to pick apart the opposition. Indeed, Cesare Prandelli's team were unfazed in their opening game against Spain and the manager's tactical tweaking in selecting an unfamiliar three-man defence allowed the midfield five to contest the Spaniards' domination of the ball.

Although they ended the match with 34% possession, an equal number of shots on target reveals the threat Italy can provide. Prandelli will be hoping, though, that the team are less wasteful than they were against England - when 36 attempts failed to yield a goal.

Balotelli's impressive performance, and superior physical fitness to Antonio Cassano, means that he's a certainty to start but the striker will need to be more ruthless with his chances. It's unlikely that Mats Hummels will afford Balotelli as many opportunities as he found against England and the forward must capitalise on the breaks that do come his way.

The real battle in this game, however, will be the influence Pirlo and Mesut Ozil can provide. Both playmakers have been in coruscating form in Poland and Ukraine and have sumptuously displayed their ability to control matches.

As Nick Miller pointed out in his Top Ten, Ozil's performance against Holland was magnificent and the attacking midfielder followed up with a devastating contribution to tear Greece apart in the quarters. The 23-year-old is rapidly becoming one of the finest players in his position and Thursday presents another opportunity - if it were needed - for him to display his credentials.

However, Pirlo will equally be aiming to have the most significant impact on the game as his Indian summer stretches beyond Juventus' Scudetto win. Prandelli's team is based on providing the 33-year-old with the time to pick his passes and carve open the opposition defence, and the coach will be hoping that Daniele De Rossi - the midfield shield - recovers from injury in time to slot into the game-plan.

England were criticised for allowing Pirlo too much room on the ball, but Loew has admitted that he won't prescribe a man-marking task. "He is a brilliant strategist," said the Germany manager. "Man marking him is useless because he drops deep so often."

Indeed, given Pirlo's positioning, there is a possibility that if Germany can close him down quickly - as England managed on a solitary occasion that resulted in a quick break - then possession will rapidly switch between the two playmakers.

It should make for an entertaining game, with both teams witnessing first hand in the quarter-finals that caution is not often rewarded in international tournaments.

Matt Stanger - now available on Twitter.

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