Now we have reached the semi-final stage of the Euros. Some 28 matches have been played, 69 goals scored, one penalty shoot out decided, and now we are down to the three most intense matches of all. The stage is set for the players of Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy to write the scripts that go down in history. When judging the contributions of players, it always helps if they are on a triumphant team, or have been a decisive factor in key games being won or lost. But that should not be the only criteria for assessing who has excelled in a tournament. These individuals have all done made an impact on their respective teams, and have captured the imagination.
Gigi Buffon, GK, Italy
Buffon already has his status in the pantheon of Italian greats assured, but his importance to his country in this tournament should not be overlooked just because he has been a World Cup winner, and multiple Serie A winner, in the past. His contribution has been worthy of a captain, in his deeds and in the example he sets for some less experienced team-mates. His passion for the cause is as impressive as his ability. Poland’s stand-in Przemyslaw Tyton had arguably the most remarkable moment for any goalkeeper, a third choice keeper thrown in to face a penalty in his first action in tournament football. He played well enough to ensure first choice Wojciech Szczesny never made it back into the team.
Theodor Gebre Selassie, RB, Czech Republic
One of the beauties of an international tournament is the chance to discover a talent of whom word has not spread much beyond his homeland. Gebre Selassie made people suddenly sit up and take notice. His exceptional speed and marauding runs caught the eye, and he was able to make a difference for his team at both ends of the pitch. He is the first black player to play for the Czech Republic, having Etheopian roots, and after such an impressive tournament it is hoped he will only be judged as standing out for his ability, and nothing else.
Mats Hummels, CB, Germany
Hummels has emerged as one of the classiest defenders of his generation. He blends tough defensive instincts with impressive comfort on the ball and is as known for his range of passing as his resilient blocks. At only 23, he did not have an enormous number of caps to his name at the start of the tournament – and amazingly some people in Germany were worried that the coach Jogi Low wouldn’t even pick him for the starting line-up. He has become a mainstay for club and country.
Olof Mellberg, CB, Sweden
Sweden’s veteran joined a very exclusive club when he became the sixth player to perform at four Euros (Alessandro del Piero, Peter Schmeichel, Lilian Thuram, Edwin van der Sar and Lothar Matthaus being the others). With three outstanding displays in the group stage he proved he deserved to be in such elite company. His determination and technique was inspirational in what turned out to be his Swedish swansong. Zlatan Ibrahimovic described him as the greatest defender his country had ever produced. “A fantastic person and a fantastic footballer who's had a fantastic European championship,” gushed Ibra.
Philipp Lahm, LB, Germany
For some reason, the number of high quality left backs far outweighs their cousins on the right side of the defence. Of course, Lahm is normally used as a right back, but such is his class he switches sides effortlessly, and Germany are lucky to be able to use him where he is most needed. Fabio Coentrao, Jordi Alba and Federico Balzaretti have all been excellent so far in the Euro, but Lahm’s role within his team as a calm leader adds to his worth. He was the youngest player to captain Germany at the last World Cup. He will be looking to lift the trophy this time.
Sami Khedira, CM, Germany
Like his club-mate Mesut Ozil, Khedira’s game has been furnished with extra qualities since he moved to Real Madrid. The experience of playing in such a spotlight, and under the guidance of a strategic coach like Jose Mourinho, has enabled the German to blossom into a fantastic all-action midfielder. He is dynamic and powerful, and the blend in the German midfield between him, Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger is enviable. Khedira is more than your average defensive midfielder. His thumping volley to see off Greece in the quarter-finals showed that in emphatic style.
Giorgios Karagounis, CM, Greece
Numerous attacking midfielders have excelled at this Championships: The Spanish master Xavi, the German trickster Ozil, the Polish heartbeat Kuba Blaszczykowski, the Portuguese supporting act Joao Moutinho. It is hard, though, to ignore the impact made by Karagounis. He was the inspiration behind the Greek team who caused the shock of the tournament when they ousted Russia. If the night had been any more eventful he might just have burst a blood vessel. He scored a wonderfully determined goal, and ought to have won a penalty but for an atrocious decision by the referee. Unfortunately, he was suspended for Greece’s quarter-final defeat by Germany. He alone probably wouldn’t have been enough to turn around that result, but he sure would have tried.
Andrea Pirlo, CM, Italy
An awesome display of the playmaking arts against England was as fantastic to watch as anything this Euro has produced. There was an idea before the game that the English might somehow suffocate his skills but they could not even get close. He may not be the fastest player in the world but his speed of thought is exceptional. He has left many an opponent completely bamboozled. Pirlo is the conductor of this Italy team, dictating the game with his imagination and sublime passing. It is not a coincidence that he was injured for all but a cameo appearance when Italy floundered at the World Cup two years ago.
Andres Iniesta, LM, Spain
Such is the Spanish method of playing, all their clever ball players are integral parts of the system that confounds just about every opponent. Spain might not have been as punchy as they were when they won the tournament four years ago, mainly because of the coach’s reluctance to field an authentic striker, but Iniesta has been the one most liable to make the audience jump out of their seats. His stylish darting runs are something to behold. He seems to be even more crucial to his team now. “As the years pass, you just feel better,” he says. “Every year you get more responsibility and just feel better within the team.”
Mario Mandzukic, CF, Croatia
This has not been a tournament blessed with in-form strikers. Mario Gomez of Germany scored a couple of belters against the Netherlands, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli demonstrated brilliant technique in their goals against France and the Republic of Ireland respectively, but we have not seen a deadly predator causing havoc. Mandzukic came to the fore at the head of a Coatia team who were better than their early exit suggested. Three goals in his first two matches set the standard. This rugged and powerful performer was a constant menace.
Cristiano Ronaldo, RM, Portugal
A contender for the finest individual display in the competition so far. He elevates this Portugal team, and provides them with an x-factor that is a worry for any opponent. He was spectacular in their quarter-final victory over the Czech Republic. Ronaldo’s critics suggest that he regards himself and his goals as something a little separate from the rest of the team.Clearly frustrated in the opening couple of games, he has revved up as the competition has become tougher. Ronaldo is desperate to win honors with his country. To do so, he will have to get one over the friends and foes he knows so well from Spain.